Archive for the ‘Australia Ensemble’ Category

A trinity of concerts

April 9, 2017

Last Saturday to the SOH to hear the SSO.  I met up with my friend and former student (though I don’t think I ever directly taught him in class), Db.

It feels as though Db and I go even further back than we actually do.  His PhD supervisor, M (who died relatively young in about 2001) was a close family friend and neighbour when I grew up in West Pymble.  M told Db a few anecdotes about my family which gave a perspective on that time which I would otherwise not have had.  And retrospectively going even further back, Db is now responsible for and from time to time travels to a scientific facility which is just up the road from the sheep station where my father grew up before WWII.

The program, conducted by Asher Fisch, was:

Dorman, After Brahms, 3 orchestral intermezzi
Brahms – Schicksalslied and Gesang der Parzen (with the Sydney Philharmonia)
Strauss, Alpine Symphony.

The first two of the Dorman pieces are based on/derived from aspects of late Brahms piano pieces, respectively Op 118 No 1 and Op 119 No 1.   I can’t say the Brahmsian spirit really struck me in the first one.  It seemed, in its orchestral version, simply too helter-skelter.  The second was closer to its original. Funnily enough, it was the third piece, claiming no specific Brahms model, which felt the most Brahmsian.

This was the SSO’s first performance of Schicksalslied and also of Gesang der Parzen.  For that matter, I’m not sure if we’ve had Nänie and the Alto Rhapsody is only infrequently done.

I had been particularly looking forward to Sl and GdP.  Both texts have rather similar themes, and even a metaphor in common of mortals’ destiny (as opposed to the Gods’) being like water falling downwards over Klippen (cliffs).  GdP (Goethe from Euripides; a song sung by the fates to poor old Tantalus) was grimmer.  They are both a reminder of a Hellenism which is definitely a bigger thing in German literary culture than English. I enjoyed them both, notwithstanding rather whiter-than-ideal tone at an exposed high and quiet tenor part of the Gesang

At interval Db reminded me that it was at the SOH that we had been to what he counted as his most memorable Strauss performance. That was on (if Ausstage be my guide) 13 September 1991. After taking part in a school concert in the Concert Hall, we slipped into about row C of the stalls for the last act of Der Rosenkavalier.  This was Stuart Challender’s last ever performance, three months to the day before he died.  You can only imagine what he must have been feeling when he conducted the bit where the Marschallin muses on the passing of time.

I’m afraid I didn’t really get into the Alpine Symphony.  I must have been in the wrong mood for it. There are definitely some bits which are a bit like the fight between Telramund and Lohengrin and which are only just music.  Until the final section, it just seemed so loud and fast.  I wanted to pause for a few more breathers on the way up the mountain.  The playing, however, was fine, and I’ve since listened to the broadcast on air and online and enjoyed it more.

On Friday, I went impromptu to Angel Place to hear/see the St John Passion – stirred by the rehearsal I had stumbled across the day before at St James King Street.  Inevitably in Angel Place the choir could not match the exhilarating power of its opening chorus when sung in an almost empty church the night before.  Whilst the church would have been less resonant when full and obviously its capacity is less than Angel Place, I wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off staying in the church – sticking the kids up in the back gallery with maybe a few in the choir stalls if they wouldn’t fit upstairs. Fewer people would have got to hear it  and yes those pews are not comfortable, but Angel Place is so expensive to hire that I imagine the financial outcome could have been about the same and there are other reasons – let’s call them authenticity for short – for keeping it in the church.

I was surprised at how few solo arias there in fact are.  Sally-Anne Russell was better suited to her second than her first.  I’m not sure that I have ever heard an unequivocally successful rendition of the second soprano aria, which may be more about the aria and its place near the end of work than the performers.

I find myself less in sympathy with the religious content than I would once have been. The St John is the more blood-libelly of the Passions (“If thou lettest this mango, thou art not Elias’ friend.”) At one time I affected to prefer it to the St Matthew, on account of its more punchy narrative, but now I suspect it would take the more elaborate stage machinery of the latter to sweep me past the Religion to my own higher sphere.

It was an estimable performance.  “You look exhilarated!” said the cloak-room attendant when I went to get my bag at the end, and I suppose I was.

On Saturday just past to UNSW to hear the Australia Ensemble.

The concert was entitled “Fantasy and Variations.”  The fantasy was a work for piano quintet by Carl Vine.  This was very effective without necessarily sticking its neck out very far.  I enjoyed it.

The remaining works all featured variations: the Carl Nielsen wind quintet; a Prélude, récitatif et variations for flute, viola and piano by Duruflé, and the Mozart Clarinet Quintet.  The Duruflé was a discovery to me: it’s only his Op 3 and it seems his only published chamber work, so I wouldn’t say it is really typical of him; it was quite lush.  The Nielsen is deservedly a classic.

I had been blasé about the Mozart in prospect.  It is a work which suffers a bit from over-exposure. But blasé was good because things could only get better once the quintet started. Although the clarinet is prominent – the opening movement is almost a duet between the first violin and the clarinet – what was really striking was the way that David Griffiths integrated himself within the ensemble as a whole.  It’s not the kind of piece where you stamp and shout at the end, but you know you have heard, at least in a performance like this, a masterpiece.

Of the three concerts, I enjoyed the Australia Ensemble’s the most.

Older Russians

March 15, 2017

Last Saturday night with my old friend and some-time piano teacher P to the Australia Ensemble’s first concert of the year, entitled Russian Legends.

The program was:

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971):L’histoire du soldat (Soldier’s Tale Suite)(1918)

Sofia Gubaidulina (b 1931):Allegro Rustico (1963) and Sounds of the Forest (1978)

Anton Arensky (1861-1906): Piano Trio no.1 Op.32 (1894)


Elena Kats-Chernin (b 1957): Three Rags (1996)

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887): String Quartet no. 2(1881)

The Stravinsky was an arrangement by the composer for violin, clarinet and piano written for a patron who had financed the original work.  The clarinettist was the ensemble’s seemingly now-permanent guest artist, David Griffiths.  That probably means that the UNSW is never again going to make a permanent appointment to the Ensemble of the sort the other members enjoy.

Dene Olding was in particularly fine form for the devilish violin part.

I really enjoyed the Gubaidulina, which were for flute and piano, despite  a few really shocking audience noises.  I find I am a sucker for flutter tonguing on the flute in much the way I am for mutes on strings.

I expect it is because I have heard Geoffrey Collins so often with the Ensemble that I find his style highly recognisable when he pops up on the radio, either in some Australian chamber work or by his distinctive (to me) contribution to the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra as their principal flute. Wouldn’t it be nice if he could fill in a few principal gigs with the SSO while they don’t have their own?

The Arensky didn’t quite live up to my expectations, but that was more the work than the performance and my expectations were probably pitched too high.  It features a massive piano part – in previous years set as a choice but rarely if ever chosen in the Sydney International Piano Competition.  In the first movement, the effect was almost comic with Dimity Hall and Julian Smiles seemingly unperturbed by fairly straightforward material for the violin and cello whilst in almost a parallel world Ian Munro cooked up a storm behind them.  The balance of energy became more even in the last two movements.

I wasn’t so crazy about the Kats-Chernin.  I feel a resistance to pieces where all the audience feel they have to have a little sighing chuckle at the end, especially if I’m not feeling it myself.  Of the three rags (all, I think, originally for piano), the first was an arrangement by Kats-Chernin and the second and third were arrangements by Griffiths.  Without knowing that, P thought the Griffiths arrangements more successful.

The first time P came to hear the Ensemble the Borodin quartet was on the program and with it they won her allegiance.  The third movement is the most famous and the audience anticipation was palpable as the players took a moment to tune, though Dene O never seemed to me to quite settle in the famous tune.

I most enjoyed the first movement, which from the start feels like a conversation that you have just walked into, and the amazing second movement which opens with a kind of whirling without bass – as if of birds or other objects in the air.  Wikipedia tells me that the last movement is a masterpiece of counterpoint but it is hard for it to live up to what has come before.

In the pre-concert publicity Irina Morozova was quoted as saying how much she loves the Borodin quartet on account of its being Russian and “in her blood.” It is certainly a quartet with a generous serve of gratifying moments for the viola.

This year the Ensemble has gone the Eventbrite way with bar-coded tickets printed on A4 sheets of paper.  You also get an email and perhaps it is possible to put the barcode on your phone.  I guess this saves them money but I would still rather have a traditional ticket – the A4 printout is so daggy.

At least our tickets were not being scanned with a device as we entered as they now very officiously (and delay-makingly) are at the Opera House.

Earlier in the week, I went to Daniil Trifonov’s recital.  It was very much the hot ticket in town and everyone was there (2).   Trifonov is a phenomenal player.  I’m afraid all the excitement about his virtuosity got a bit in the way of my really losing myself in the music.  I don’t mean by that to accuse him of any meretricious display; it was mostly me.




Australia Ensemble 2016.6

October 21, 2016


Last Saturday night to hear the last concert for the year by the Australia Ensemble.  I’m somewhere there in the above picture.

The program was:

Guillaume CONNESSON Techno-Parade (2002) [flute, clarinet, piano]
Roger SMALLEY Piano Quintet (2003)
[the following 4 with the Sydney Children’s Choir]
Lyn WILLIAMS A Flock of Stars (2009)
Claude DEBUSSY Christmas carol for homeless children (1915)
Joseph TWIST Jubilate Deo (2009)
Paul STANHOPE Songs of Innocence and Joy (2004)
Johannes BRAHMS String Sextet in G op. 36 (1864-5)

The Connesson was short and swift, and totally exciting.

I enjoyed the Smalley more than I expected to.  It is possibly the last of a series of works by him which “reference” Chopin – in this case, a fragment from a Mazurka and also, in the final Chaconne and variations, a whole lot of the genres in which Chopin wrote.  I think I liked most the second movement, a brief Intermezzo, but that is probably because I am such a lover of muted strings.

This concert was the closest up I have ever got to the Sydney Children’s Choir.  As you might expect, there are quite a lot more girls than boys in the group.  More surprising to me (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised) was how few non-whiteys were in the group.  Maybe the Chinese kids are all off at Chinese school or learning the violin?

The choir processed on with bar chimes (I’m sure there is a better technical term for what they were playing: a bit like single xylophone bars encased in a box with a beater on a spring which was activated by shaking the contraption).  “A Flock of stars” by their conductor Lyn Williams also featured these instruments as well as an improvised part by David Griffiths on clarinet.  It was very atmospheric and just a bit reminiscent of Ceremony of Carols with a bit of Jan Garbarek thrown in.

The Debussy was a fascinating bit of history – a song of children made homeless by WWI wishing vengeance on behalf of France and other victims of the Germans – so a bit or propaganda really, however heartfelt.

Apparently Joseph Twist, once a member of the choir at S James King Street, has now gone to the USA to work in the film business.  I couldn’t help feeling his Jubilate had a touch of the Morricones.

The Stanhope songs matched Leunig’s rather cute lyrics quite well – they were written when he was a composer in residence at MLC School (back in the now ended “Mrs Carey” era).

It was nice to have the Children’s Choir there and they sang well.  Nevertheless, with the Brahms Sextet in the second half I was happy to be back in Australia Ensemble core territory.  This was a very satisfying performance of a beautiful work.  I hope the choir, who stayed for the second half, also enjoyed it.

And to cap it all off, contrary to my earlier fears, we still had the traditional drinks and delicious chocolates to celebrate the end of the season.

When I first wrote this post, the concert was due to be broadcast on ABC FM at 8pm on Tuesday 18 October.  Unfortunately this was on the eve of a trial and I’m sorry to say I missed it.  I’d like to say it was there for a while to listen again to but that does not seem to be the case.

Australia Ensemble

September 20, 2016

I have been going to the AE @ UNSW for about 10 years now.  I was a late starter because for many years, as I lacked a car, the schlepp out to Kensington was too much trouble.  Once I started going, I had a car, but the subscription habit crystallised because my friend and former piano teacher, P, also went and I was conveniently (for me) not far out of her way there.

This year has not been a good year for me and the AE.  I have only been to 3 out of 5 concerts so far.

The first concert I missed, in August, was a failure of organisation on my part in resolving a clash with my set series seat for Così fan tutte.  Then my aunt was taken ill in Albany, WA and I missed the September concert.

In the meantime, at the beginning of September, the Ensemble’s season for 2017 was launched at a function for donors and sponsors.

In past years, next year’s series has been announced at the final concert, rounded off by a kind of party where free drinks and particularly delicious chocolates were dispensed.  I fear we won’t be getting those this year.  I expect the presence of a children’s choir as guest artists at the final concert might have seemed incompatible with such largesse.  If so, that will be a break from tradition which I shall regret.

2017 will be, I think, the second season for which Paul Stanhope is responsible as artistic director.  He has taken over after a long incumbency by Roger Covell, and predictably this has been accompanied by the usual motions to re-invent and freshen things up.

Innovation and breaks from tradition are flip sides of the same coin.

It’s true that in recent years there have been a few attempts to shake things up a bit – with dance, multi-media and the like.  Mostly I’ve found these just a bit naff.  What’s wrong with the repertoire for various ensembles drawn from the Ensemble’s make-up plus some supplementary artists?  If variety is needed, there is plenty of scope for that including by featuring more “cutting edge” works.

So yes, I find myself a bit of a fuddy-duddy.

Two aspects of next year’s season are, at least in prospect, less enticing than I would hope.

First, we are to have a program The Sound of Pictures, “hosted” by “Radio National’s The Music Show host, Andrew Ford” which will offer “an exploration of music written by composers for film as well as concert music that makes use of the moving image as part of its presentation.”

My general rule is the less talking at a concert, the better, even if by Andrew Ford, who I’ll freely concede is a great communicator.  And I’m not really a fan (as indicated above) of the craze for “film music” concerts.  I also squirm just a bit at the implications of the “Radio National” reference.  To me this is redolent of Opera Australia’s penchant for casting personalities in musicals, of which the (ultimately aborted) casting of Alan Jounes in “Anything Goes” was but the latest example.

Secondly, there is a usual format for AE concerts and an established ecology of an AE season.  The first half of a concert will usually have a number of shorter works, including, often, the novelty and more modern works; the second half usually has the “big work” – most often a stalwart of the mainstream chamber music repertoire – which mostly means nineteenth century big works or well known (and hence crowd-pleasing) C20 works – eg, in September, the Quartet for the End of Time.  As to the ecology, over a season the big works will usually make up a mix of standard-format ensembles (string quartet, piano trio, quartet, quintet) and larger ensembles drawing on guest artists.

Next year, the “big works” are:

  • March – Borodin, String Quartet No 2
  • April – Mozart, Clarinet Quintet
  • May – Adams, Gnarly Buttons, with Dvořák’s “American” string quartet as a kind of backup.
  • August – Schubert Octet
  • September – unclear, this is the “film” music concert;
  • October – Tchaikovsky, Souvenir de Florence (for string sextet).

What’s missing?  Well, to me, and I expect also to P, what’s missing (apart from the Arensky Trio which is a welcome inclusion in the March concert) is any “big work” for an ensemble including Ian Munro, a pianist we both admire.

What’s going on?  It would be pointless to speculate.  I can only hope this is a temporary aberration.



May 24, 2016

On Saturday 14 May to UNSW with P and her son T to hear the Australia Ensemble.

For the second time this year, there was a large flock of corellas roosting in the big gum trees at the front of the John Clancy Auditorium.

The program was:

MILHAUD: Sonata for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano
STRAUSS: Piano Quartet Op. 13
BALL: Three Dreams in Pulse – new work for clarinet and piano (first performance)
MENDELSSOHN: Octet in E flat major Op. 20

The Strauss (Richard) was said to be a Brahmsian work. I suppose compared to where Strauss went afterwards it was, though I didn’t hear all that much Brahms until the third movement and the busy beginning to the finale.  There were unmistakeable signs of the future Strauss starting from the Heldenleben-ish big tune in the first movement and right up to the characteristic (think Till Eulenspiegel, or the boy coming back for the hanky at the end of Der Rosenkavalier) playful curlicues.

The Ball was a commission, originally for Catherine McCorkill, who sadly is no longer billed as part of the ensemble.  The “Pulse” in the title clearly refers to rhythm rather than legumes.  It was given a rousing rendition by David Griffiths, still listed as a mere associate artist.  And, of course (though less rousingly) Ian Munro at the keyboard.

The Mendelssohn is of course a wonder, though not quite the marvel it is often touted to be (on account of his extreme youth when he wrote it) because the version we hear was polished up by him a few years later.  The string members of the ensemble were joined by the Tin Alley Quartet.  The octet is such a well-known work that I found it almost nerve-wracking to witness, especially in the big first movement which really gave Dene Olding a work-out (as does the whole thing really).  I should lighten up.  The second movement (the least well-known) was a relief by comparison.

I have let too much time pass to make any very meaningful comment about the Milhaud.  P is often critical of some wind ensemble music, but I find myself nearly always beguiled by the sheer sound of the wind instruments playing together (or, in this case, with the piano as well).  I think it is because instruments supported by breath are so much like the voice.  The music is almost irrelevant to this.  From memory I liked the first and last movements the most, though the explosive third movement was pretty exciting.

In the last movement, I noticed the oboist, Huw Jones, sticking something up the bell of the instrument when he was playing some low and quiet notes.  A few bars later he took it out and almost surreptitiously stuck it back in his pocket.  I guessed it was some kind of mute – it is difficult to play the oboe low and quiet and it has a propensity to quack a bit.

At interval, I ran into Jones. When I asked him about the mute he pulled it from his pocket where it still was: a packet of Tally-ho cigarette papers.

You often see woodwind players doing something with cigarette papers mid-performance and especially oboists, when they are not (as they also often are) fiddling with their reeds.  Internet “researches” suggest that they are drying the pads.  Some woodwind supply shops actually sell cigarette papers.

Jones told me that there were cloth mutes that people sometimes used but the Tally-ho pack was just the right size.  I’m guessing it is probably also convenient if you are going to have the packet with you anyway on account of the other uses for the papers.

What will oboists do in the not-so-distant day when all smoking is forbidden and smoking paraphernalia are no longer so widely distributed?  It could be a bit like the problem which is already emerging in relation to the million-and-one home uses for newsprint.




Transfigured Night

March 23, 2016

On Saturday to the first Australia Ensemble concert for the year. It’s good to be back.

The program was:

Joaquín TURINA (1882-1949): Circulo Op.91 (1942)
Don BANKS (1923-1980): Prologue, Night Piece and Blues for Two (1968)
Luigi DALLAPICCOLA (1904-1975): Piccola musica notturna (1954)
Ravi SHANKAR (1920-2012): L’Aube Enchantée (The Enchanted Dawn) (1976)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828): Notturno D897 in E flat Op.148 (c.1827)
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951): Verklärte Nacht Op.4 (Transfigured Night) (1899)

The Turina was effectively a short piano trio in three (titled) movements.  A few little quirks aside it could have been written in Paris in about 1900 rather than in Madrid in 1942.

I’d never heard of Turina.  The program notes said he was persecuted by the Republicans during the civil war.  I’m not saying that never  to anyone (far from it) but these days it is a rare distinction to be claimed on behalf of anyone.

The piece was quite unknown to me: a bit of internet burrowing suggests that it may have come to the Australia Ensemble via a performance given by Julian Smiles as one of Katherine Selby’s “friends” (as opposed to former members of the Macquarie Trio, who presumably are not) in 2013.  The first movement was particularly lush.

I would like to have got more out of the the Dallapicola than I did.  The Ravi Shankar struck me as verging on musical blackface: harp and flute pretending to be Indian instruments.  It was fun at first but perhaps it was my ignorance that led me to feel by the end that it was going on a bit, whatever admiration I had for the virtuosity of the players and particularly Geoffrey Collins.  Too many notes! I was beginning to think – and certainly there were a lot.  Still, I always enjoy a good dose of harp and despite early exposure to the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto it must be said that flute and harp make a good combination.  The Banks was enjoyable without I think even professing to be profound.

Before the concert, P, my A-E-going companion, said that she was looking forward to hearing the Schubert Notturno as she hadn’t heard it before.  It is actually an orphan piano trio slow movement.  Once we had heard it she agreed that she probably had heard it: I was sure I had.  I enjoyed it.  How can one not enjoy a Schubert slow movement?  There is one slightly idiosyncratic passage when the strings break out rather unexpectedly into pizzicato to accompany the theme, sustained by the piano:

Schubert Notturno fragment

This still sounded odd when it returned.  I wonder if that moment has something to do with the movement’s failure to find parents.

The Schoenberg, after which the concert and this year’s series were named, was the undeniable highlight.  The core quartet was joined by Umberto Clerici and Justin Williams from the SSO.  We don’t get to hear string sextets that often but when we do  I am struck at how rich yet intimate they can be.

It’s hard to avoid clichés like “absorbing” and “compelling” so what the hell, I haven’t avoided them. I loved the bit which corresponds to when in the eponymous poem the man tells the woman who has just told him she bears another’s child that his love for her is unassailed, even deepened.  Julian Smiles came in with a big bright sound that blazed out transfiguration. The final section with its night twitters, was spellbinding.  I doubt if the orchestral version could ever match this.



If a tree falls….

May 22, 2015

Lest an unblogged concert suffer the same fate as an unheard falling tree, I’m returning to blog life with a bit of a catch up. This has turned into a bit of a marathon post.

First, concerts I went to.

1.   Australia Ensemble 14 March Raising Sparks

As usual, I went with my old friend, P. This was the Australia Ensemble’s season opener with guest artists Alice Giles, harp and Fiona Campbell, mezzo soprano. The program was:

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937): Introduction and Allegro (1905)

Arnold BAX (1833-1953): Harp Quintet (1919)

Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924): Piano Trio in D minor Op. 120 (1922-3)

James MACMILLAN (b 1959): Raising Sparks for mezzo soprano, flute, clarinet, harp, piano and string quartet (1997).

David Stanhope conducted the MacMillan.

I enjoyed the Ravel the most, even though it is a shamelessly written-to-order promotional piece for a new model of harp which reflects Ravel’s compositional practice at the beginning of his career rather than where he went later. Harriet Cunningham of the SMH was less enthusiastic but she wasn’t sitting as close to the harp as I was. Sometimes luscious sound is its own reward. (It would be nice to say that conversely making a beautiful sound with crap music is also a harpist’s tragedy but I’m not sure things work like that.)

The ensuing Bax was a bit of an anticlimax, mainly because the harp was further away. The Fauré met (reasonably high) expectations, save that rather a lot of it was written in unison for cello and violin which seems odd for a trio. The MacMillan was fascinating and Fiona Campbell did a great job but towards the end it became less fascinating as it went on a bit.

If I had to start taking MacMillan’s ideas seriously I don’t think I could. It’s one thing to tolerate guff from someone long-dead such as Wagner but I am less tolerant of my own contemporaries.

2.   Sydney Symphony Orchestra 21 March

This featured Janine Jensen (violin) and her conductor husband, Daniel Blendulf, with the Brahms violin concerto in the first half and the Sibelius Fifth Symphony in the second. I think that’s a pretty solid program. A piece by Nigel Butterley marking his eightieth birthday was a bonus. Though hardly flashy (it was commissioned by the Ku-ring-gai Philharmonic, a “community” orchestra) this grew on me as it went. It is too long ago for me to say anything else intelligent about the Brahms and Sibelius (which is not meant to be a self-congratulation that I have said anything intelligent about the Butterley) other than that I remember Mr Blendulf as a young man in a hurry when he got the bit between his teeth although JJ more than matched him in the Brahms finale.

3.   Louis Lortie in recital at Angel Place, 13 April

This program was entirely made up of preludes, by, in turn, Faure, Scriabin and Chopin. The Fauré were a bit of a mixed bag (the most amiable was reminiscent of Kitty-Waltz from “Dolly”), the Scriabin were a revelation and the Chopin the most familiar and probably for that reason the most enjoyable.

4.  18 April – Australia Ensemble My Twentieth Century

Again, to this with P and her music-student son, this time on some kind of special offer to Sydney Youth Orchestra members in honour of Dimity Hall and Julian Smiles having recently performed the Brahms double concerto with them. The program was:

Martin BRESNICK (b 1946): My Twentieth Century (2002)

Peter SCULTHORPE (1929-2014): Irkanda IV (1961) arr. by the composer for flute and string quartet

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937): Duo for violin and cello (1920-22)

Elliott CARTER (1908-2012): Esprit rude, esprit doux (1985)

Edward ELGAR (1857-1934): Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84 (1918)

The Bresnick, for string quartet, flute and piano, is one of those pieces that requires the musicians to speak portions of a text, in this case leaving their instrumental places and stepping up to the microphone to say their allotted portions of a poem reproduced here. So I was trepidatious on two counts – musicians speaking and mixture of amplified and acoustic sound. It turned out there was no need for my trepidation – none of the speaking was cringe-making and it wasn’t too loud, and the device of the speaking also provided a neat means of varying the texture as in turn a different instrument was excised from the ensemble. The music itself was a kind of mild semi-post-minimalism. I enjoyed it.

I wasn’t so sure about the Sculthorpe. Is there no limit to how often the late PS could repackage essentially the same music? Sculthorpe right now basks in a kind of post-obit afterglow but after watching some of the television manifestations of it (especially the party scene featuring a young Alan John and even younger Jonathan Mills bashing away in piano duo) I wonder how long this will endure now Sculthorpe isn’t here to be so Charming to Everyone. I know I am going out on a limb here.

In the second half the Elliott Carter was short but invigorating and the Elgar was satisfying.

5.    Sydney Symphony, Des Knaben Wunderhorn & Nutcracker Act II – 8 May

Mark Wigglesworth conducted.

I was keen to get to this because DkW via Schwarzkopf & Fischer-Dieskau and Szell was my point of entry to Mahler, when in my teenage years we still thought of him as a slightly recondite but definitely groovy and for-the-cognoscenti composer. Berlioz was another in the same category and thinking back I’d say LP recordings of the 60s and 70s had a lot to do with it.

Oddly enough, DKW does not seem to get onto the SSO’s roster so often these days. The latest Sydney performance the program notes identified was not by the SSO but by the VPO on their last visit, and the 2010-11 SSO Mahler-fest did not extend to it. Natalie Shea’s program note for Symphony Australia (adapted for the this occasion and lacking any explanation of the selection of songs in the concert and explaining only by omission their sequence and assignment to particular singers) dated back to 2002. DKW seems to have been relegated to Mahler-lite and crowded out by the symphonies and the more heavy-duty orchestral songs.

For this performance, the SSO supplemented the set in its final form with “Urlicht” now better known as part of the “Resurrection” Symphony.

The songs were divvied up between Caitlin Hulcup, mezzo, and Randall Scarlata, baritone. Ms Hulcup is an Australian with a growing career in Europe. I am not quite so sure how Mr Scarlatta got the gig. He is an American lieder specialist who has studied in Austria and does not at first glance seem an obvious choice for a set of orchestral songs in German in Sydney. Both singers sang without a book. Oddly, Scarlatta sang a different version of the text from that printed in the program and he seemed to have memorized a kind of typo at one point, singing “Heid” (heath/hedge) for “Held” (hero). I confess I listen to the music more than the words when I am there in the flesh and I only picked this up when I followed the text when listening to the broadcast at home. None of this detracted from my enjoyment of his performance on the night, and as one of the songs points out, the judge with the biggest ears may well be an ass.

The “Nutcracker” was an entirely different and very lush world. It was fun but hard to take very seriously (as if one should). The final waltz could not match the “Waltz of the Flowers” for impact.

6.     Sydney Symphony “Romantic Visions” 16 May

The title for this program struck me as a bit of a misnomer. The works were:

Siegfried Idyll
Bartok Piano Concerto 3 (soloist Peter Serkin)
Brahms arr Schoenberg: Piano Quartet op 25.

The justification for the title seems to have been that the Wagner and the Bartok were both written (in different ways) for their wives, and the Brahms is a romantic piece (in a different sense).

The Wagner was upscaled to a full if small string orchestra, so both it and the Brahms/Schoenberg are arrangements and not in the symphonic mainstream and the Bartok is slightly left-of-centre. Sales were presumably slow on account of this as I was able to take advantage of an “invite a friend” offer and take D along (or rather, he took me, for reasons that will become obvious later in the song).

Clive Paget in (or rather on) Limelight has decried conductor Matthias Pintscher’s approach to the Siegfried Idyll as “somnolent.” You have to imagine you are Clara, waking (or possibly pretending to wake and be surprised) on Christmas Day (the first after you have managed to marry the father of three of your children) to music wafting up the stairs of your villa by a lake in Switzerland. Paget also called it glacial and I suppose this would not be inauthentic either if you think of the likely temperature. I can see what Paget meant but I didn’t mind it – the real question is whether it is good programming to start so gently. Even so, I felt the audience took it quite attentively in the spirit in which it was intended.

I enjoyed the Bartok – Serkin’s playing struck me as pointillist. D was less keen. He prefers his soloists younger and more romantic.

I have never entirely warmed to the Brahms/Schoenberg. It’s fun and the orchestra pulled out every stop in a cracking rendition but in the end as with people who go to a film and say “the book was better” I prefer the original quartet. I still enjoyed it – it would be stupid not to. The second and last movements were my favourites, which simply reflects my favourites in the quartet.

8.    Peter Serkin in recital at Angel Place, 18 May

This was an unusual recital. It began with an arrangement of a motet by Josquin des Prez and a run of pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, followed by some variations by Nielsen to finish the first half. The second half opened with three rarities by Max Reger, dipped into Mozart with a Rondo in A minor (the slow one, not the Alla Turca) and finished off with Beethoven Op 90.

Serkin is billed as an “intellectual” player and the wannabe intellectual in me would like to be able to get right into this, but I found I couldn’t. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t capable playing, or that there weren’t bits I enjoyed, especially the Reger pieces which were unknown to me. The Nielsen variations were unknown to me too but I find it hard to believe that they should be played with such little variation of mood or tone.

Of course everybody’s playing is mannered in one way or another but what was wearing me down was a kind of intense scrupulosity, studded with micro pauses signifying intensity and refinement – sustained pointillism, I suppose. In the Mozart Rondo these threatened to bring the music to a stop altogether.

By the time we came to the Beethoven I was actually becoming irritated by this. This is stupid because after all it is still great music and I should have been able still to get a lot about it. Maybe my problem was an irritation that others (eg) were feeling that something incredibly profound was going on that I couldn’t share.

I shall listen again to the broadcast (advertised in the program as on 22 May but now set down for 31 May) and see if I can appreciate the playing better then.

Postscript, Sunday pm I did and I did. Still thinking about what made the difference second time around.

Maybe I was just having a bad Endone trip.

For completeness, there was one concert I had a ticket for but didn’t make.

9.    SSO Louis Lortie, Y-P Tortelier, Mozart and Franck, 10 April

This was a concert I was very much looking forward to. Unfortunately, the day before I was diagnosed with a fractured knee I had been walking around on for a few weeks. Put in a brace and on crutches for which I had absolutely no capacity or stamina, I just couldn’t manage it. As I have since found, thanks in no small part to the helpfulness and professionalism of the front of house staff, it is not so difficult as you might think to get to a concert at the SOH when you are mobility-impaired.

P went in my place. Had I gone I would have been able to catch up with my friend and former high school music teacher, E, visiting from the far north coast for an orgy of big-city musical events. E enjoyed the concert so much that she went a second time on the Saturday afternoon instead of the Musica Viva Festival concert she was booked for, and said that the second time was even better.

Later, at home between Endone snoozes, I caught the second half of this concert on the radio, which was a consolation of sorts.

Neglected works

September 29, 2014

On Monday 15/9 to hear Stephen Hough in recital at a packed Angel Place.

The program was described by Hough when introducing an encore as a “Chopin Debussy sandwich” (or was it a Debussy Chopin sandwich?). Sticking with that metaphor, the Chopin was the filling, with the Ballades 2 and 1 coming before interval (in that order, giving a big first-act closer) and 3 and 4 after. This was preceded in the first half by Debussy’s La plus que lente and Estampes, and followed in the second by the Children’s Corner Suite and L’Isle joyeuse.

Obviously, with the possible exception of the first Debussy, none of these could be described as neglected works and indeed the program could hardly have been more popular.

I enjoyed it. Stephen Hough is a pianist I have long admired. There is a kind of spikiness (not in the Anglo-Catholic sense) in his playing – an energised articulation especially in the face of more detailed figuration and a tendency to quirkiness. That’s him: it would be possible to imagine more mellifluous Chopin and Debussy but that would not be the point.

The interposition of the interval also brought out a stylistic jump between the two pairs of Ballades.

Mercifully, enthusiastic applause which interrupted the movements of Estampes was suppressed after a final brief outburst after the first movement of Children’s Corner. Maybe the spiky style suited this piece the most.

On Friday 19/9 to the SOH, again to hear Mr Hough, this time playing the Dvořák Piano Concerto with the SSO conducted by Hans Graf. If the SSO was counting on familiarity with the artist to make up for the unfamiliarity of the concerto, that doesn’t seem to have worked – though not embarrassingly empty it was a far from full hall.

The second half was Bruckner 6. Oddly, according to the program, Hans Graf also conducted this work the last time the SSO performed it, in 1996.

I enjoyed both works though I can’t say I was really familiar with either. There was a funny bit about three-quarters into the first movement of the Dvořák when the piano part started digging into emphatic looping triplet figures against an orchestral theme where I thought, “Yes! Brahms!.” (it’s at about 9.44 here) I also liked the slow movement which made me think at first of his Op 68 No 2 but on listening again I think that is just because I knew it. As for the Bruckner, I didn’t quite grasp the ending.

I was bemused by Maxim Boon’s review in Limelight Magazine’s online version where he devoted most of the first half of his unconstrained-by-print-already-lengthy review to complaining that the talents of Hough and the SSO were squandered on such an obscure (and in his view deficient) work.

I thought it was better than that, but that did set me to thinking how narrow the canon is of nineteenth century romantic piano concerti which we hear performed, at least in Sydney. After Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Liszt, Schumann, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Grieg (and from these I think you can count only about 15 mainstream concerti) the next rung of works pretty much all only appear as obscurities, even if by well-known composers such as Mendelssohn, Strauss, Franck, Scriabin. Doubtless there are some others which I have left out – but we don’t even get to hear the famous Litolff Scherzo live unless there is an ABC Classic FM countdown.

Hough had taken up his phone in the twittersphere against a Scottish vote for independence. He had tweeted beforehand that he was planning a Scottish encore. The outcome of the poll was not then yet known, though by the time he played it, the news was in.

Without having a particular view about what was best for Scotland, I have found the whole politicking over this most amazingly bullying: why should not Scotland have succeeded as a state to the former United Kingdom and why was it assumed that in any divorce, the rump of the kingdom would get to keep everything? Hough’s Scottish piece was by Granville Bantock – about as Scottish as Debussy was Spanish, I would have thought.

On Saturday 20/9 to hear the Australia Ensemble. The main work in the first half was a clarinet quintet from Arthur Benjamin’s student days, exhumed from some library by Ian Munro. I doubt I will hear it again.

In the second half the Ensemble departed from its customary programming of a major chamber work by finishing up with an arrangement by Mendelssohn for piano duet violin and cello of his (also pretty juvenile) first symphony, which interpolated as a scherzo the famous scherzo from his Octet. The Mendelssohn received a (to me) surprisingly warm reception from the audience: I would have preferred something more redblooded and authentically thought-out for its forces.

I regret to say that piano duets are more fun to be in than to witness – there is something a bit inherently heartless about them, perhaps because of the way that each player is forced onto his or her best manners. It’s not as if you ever see two people playing the same violin or double bass. The violin and cello didn’t really have very much to add.

For me the highlight of the night was Roger Smalley’s trio for clarinet, viola and piano.

Dean Newcombe stepped in on clarinet for a sadly still indisposed Catherine McCorkill. It is difficult not to fear the worst which will be sad news indeed.

Wall of sound

September 10, 2013

On Saturday with my old friend P and her son, T, to hear the Australia Ensemble.

The bill of fare was:

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750):
Sonata in B minor for flute and keyboard BWV1030 (c1736)
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949):
Metamorphosen (Transformations) arr. Rudolf Leopold for string septet (1945)
Claude DEBUSSY (1861-1918):
Petite pièce (1910) and Première rapsodie (1909/10) for clarinet and piano
Francis POULENC (1899-1963):
Sextet for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano (1932/9)

Geoffrey Collins brought out a wooden flute for the Bach. It is a rehashing (after Bach started running the Collegium Musicale in the 1730s) of earlier works. It has an obbligato keyboard part (ie, written out rather than depending on continuo realisation) of some complexity. I thought that this overwhelmed some of the more delicate early-musicish mannerism with which Collins played the flute part, particularly in the first movement. Ian Munro played with the stick up. I don’t think that this was the problem (though P wasn’t happy with his almost unremitting use of the “soft” pedal to compensate) but something else about the style and its realisation didn’t entirely gell for me.

Strauss’s Metamorphosen was written in the dark days (for the Germans) towards the end of the war. It is a famously sombre and melancholy work in Strauss’s late late romantic style. The printed program quoted letters by Strauss bemoaning the destruction of, as well as Dresden and Hamburg, the Goethe-haus in Weimar. This last was news to me: the present Haus doesn’t show much sign of it and even allowing for the zeal of German post-war construction, this could only be so if not only the contents but also the furnishings and fittings had been spirited away for security during the war.

In order to realise for 7 players a piece originally written for 23 distinct solo parts, there was some sacrifice of the light and shade of the original – with only a few exceptions (as when the upper strings were silent) everyone had to play for pretty much all of the time. Sitting up close, as P and I do, we faced a veritable “wall of sound” – an intricate, intimate and very beautiful wall of string sound. The late romanticism is a pretty rich mix, and there was a point about two-thirds of the way through when I found it all becoming a bit much for me, as the music-induced swoon moved towards drowsiness. Then all of a sudden there was a sense of an impending ending (as the reminiscence of the Beethoven funeral march was made explicit) and I just didn’t want it to end.

The final chord was underscored by the profound infra/ultra-low C of the double bass. I’m not sure if one can literally do so but you felt you almost could hear the air between the vibrations (it’s about 33 per second). It felt like sinking into a very deep pillow. Well, a very soft wall.

Catherine McCorkill, the Ensemble’s regular clarinetist, is still apparently hors-de-combat. Philip Arkinstall filled in for the Debussy. It was a relief to revert to pianism rather than on-eggshells quasi-harpsichordism. The pieces were commissioned as test pieces for the Conservatoire – the first as a sight reading exercise and the second as something more demanding. The Rapsodie ends a bit like the violin sonata, but otherwise I was surprised that the style seemed much earlier Debussy than the composition date suggested. In terms of the German-French split of the program, this felt like a kind of sorbet, clearing the palate for the Poulenc which was to come – which is not meant to underestimate the piece or the fine performances. PA will be welcome back if CM’s indisposition continues.

The Poulenc was fun. The slow movement opens with a tune which seems quintessentially Poulencian in its charm and the harmonic corners it turns. The outer movements owed more to Poulenc’s jolly-jazzy mode. They bubbled over with ideas – almost too many to contain within the one piece. So much invention sounded like allusions, though I don’t know exactly to what.

The concert will be broadcast late in November and I hope to manage to catch it then.

We didn’t check the election result (T had voted for the first time) until after the concert, which was probably just as well.


May 13, 2013

Despite my blog quietism, I have been going to a few concerts.  As much for my own future reference as anything else, these are those which I have not mentioned here so far.

SSO – 15 March

Joyce Yang played Tchaik 1; of the two obscurities, Dvořák’s Othello overture made a stronger impression than Tchaikovsky’s Fatum; Respighi’s Roman Festivals was the big finish. It’s too distant in the past for me to give any more informative or detailed comment.

SSO – 18 March

Joyce Yang in recital. I’m afraid despite her advocacy, I still cannot really warm to Bartok. It’s not just the idiom, I think it must be his personality. He is the composer of that kinky (and by contemporary standards also rather racist in the inscrutable oriental sense) Miraculous Mandarin, though I suppose he can’t be held entirely responsible for the ballet’s scenario.

SSO 5 April

Reinhard Goebel led the SSO through a rare excursion into earlier music. We got two out of three of the Water Music suites in what was claimed to be a more authentic sequence, though the lack of the first suite detracted a bit from that. The orchestra obviously warmed to Goebel but for me the venue is a bit big for some of this stuff. The revelation was the final Chaconne by Berton which is a bit of a calling card of Goebel’s.

Australia Ensemble 18 April

My friend P was following her son at a youth orchestra concert in Penrith, so I took my younger sister, visiting from rural WA.  My nephew (aged 12) also came.  He was a bit disappointed there wasn’t a trombone, since that is the instrument he is learning.  Faced with a Dvořák string quintet in the second half we let him play with his DS in the foyer.  The front-of-house staff offered him a free sandwich (more accurately, they are dinner-roll-sized little filled rolls) when they were clearing up.  I was shocked to learn he declined the offer.

SSO 2 May

This was a “Meet the Music” concert but it was also a program which notably drew out (if I may say so myself) the cognoscenti. The whole Dulwich Hill gang and their associates were there in force as well as other notables. The attraction was Thomas Ades conducting his own work Polaris (without the visuals commissioned from his better half to go with it on its first performance), matched rather well with the Lutoslawski Cello Concerto (Peter Wispelwey), Sibelius 6 and, less obviously, Beethoven’s Namensfeier Overture. The Lutoslawski and the Ades fared the best, though the effect of the Ades rather depended on not sitting too closely (as a friend of mine did) to one of the antiphonal gallery brass choirs.

SSO – 9 May Beethoven

Beethoven can still pack the house. This was also the first appearance (at least witnessed by me) since his appointment of Andrew Haveron, the new [co-] concertmaster.   It augured well. (Actually it seems from that link that Haveron is only here just now for a teaser and won’t be back for good until the beginning of next year.  It’s a bit like those government promises that phase in over a far-into-the-future period.)  Exceptionally, there were four men at the front of the first violins.

The concert opened with Weingartner’s arrangement of the Beethoven Grosse Fugue for string orchestra. This was testing for all and ultimately worth it, though I have to say there is something about a string orchestra which never really excites me. I know I’m showing my ignorance here but what exactly there was to arrange is a bit of a mystery beyond when to double the celli with the double bass and whether solo or tutti.

On the train home a friend offered the view that the Beethoven “Triple Concerto” is a “dud work.” I would say it is a bit at the “Wellington’s Victory/ Folk Song Arrangements” end of Beethoven’s oeuvre, but the thing about Beethoven is that in general (as you can see from the piano sonatas) he is almost incapable of writing a dud work. Is this the exception?

I think it is, at least when management yields to the the temptation (because 3 soloists are required) to field a local team. Mediocre or mediocre-ish works are just the pieces which require top-notch soloists. How top-notch they are or not is relative to the occasion: it is possible that Kirsty Hilton, Catherine Hewgill and Clemens Leske would make a good impression with a lesser orchestra, but we are used to better with the SSO. In the first movement, thunderous interjections from the piano kept making me (inwardly) ask “What’s up with grumpy?” Probably drama was intended but discomposure was the result.  When I did a bit of a you-tube browse afterwards I could find performances which had more dramatic tension (the absence of this is partly, I think, a result of Ashkenazy’s rather genial approach) in the first movement and quite a lot more what I would think of as aristocratic “Archduke”-ish polish.  They restored my faith in the work but showed up what this performance was lacking.

Fortunately, the Pastoral Symphony in the second half made up for this. Being Ashkenazy, it was a mellifluous and pretty straight down the middle approach (nothing unusually fast) but none the worse for that. I remain a sucker for muted strings and the second movement therefore remains my favourite.

It seems my subscription commitments to the SSO and the AE have effectively crowded out any more ad hoc concert-going.  I should try to do something about that because they are not the only shows in town.

To prove that, I also went, with my sister and nephew to see the touring production of “One Man Two Guvnors.”  It was expertly done though my having seen the original production as part of the National Theatre Live franchise somewhat took the wind out of its sails.  They enjoyed it without this impediment.