Making the trek out to the University of New South Wales to hear the Australia Ensemble always fills me with high expectations of consummate musical performances and I was not disappointed.
The Quartet in D major (Wq94) by CPE Bach was played by core members of the ensemble Geoffrey Collins on flute, Irina Morozova on viola, Julian Smiles on cello and Ian Munro on piano.
This piece is part of an early Classical movement of the late 18th century called the Empfindsamer Stil (“Sensitive Style”). This movement was a reaction against the heaviness of the music of the high Baroque; think CPE versus his father JS. Although wonderfully performed, there is sometimes a feeling of filling in space in this composition with the odd interrupted cadence for a change of mood. The sparkly finale did spice it up considerably though. The “quartet” is really more like a trio, because the cello doubles the left hand of the piano part, much as in a continuo grouping. That said, Smiles’ light and musical interpretation added an expressive warmth that the bass line in the piano could never do on its own.
I reviewed an Artsong International concert two weeks ago where we heard the wonderful Icelandic soprano Hrafnhildur Bjornsditter perform Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock). I bemoaned that we don’t hear this wonderful work more often and here was a second time in as many weeks! A comparison between the performances is unavoidable. Sara Macliver gave a musical interpretation, well controlled expressively and rhythmically. Her tight vibrato also made for some thrilling top notes. There are however many technical points of difficulty in the soprano line, especially keeping evenness of vocal placement to maintain the tone, particularly in the big mid-word upward leaps and drops from a height down into the chest register. Also the clarinet and soprano need to match each other’s tone as closely as possible for the echo effects. In tone matching and in the clarity of German articulation, the earlier performance delivered greater warmth and engagement. Macliver’s semiquaver roulades in the final section were clear and precise; an excellent finish. David Griffiths’ playing on the clarinet was impressive, with a delicate but ravishingly sensuous performance. The lead-in to the last verse where spring and happiness return was a spine-chillingly beautiful moment.
The concert as a whole was named “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” for the following two pieces of a feathery bent.
The first of these was Le mele noir (The Blackbird) written in 1952 by the French organist/composer Olivier Messiaen, whose strong ornithological inclination frequently flowed into his compositions as imitations of bird sounds. The structure of this particular work reminded me of the slow movement of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto where a liquid and lyrical solo piano finally wins over and seduces an initially bombastic orchestra. In this Messiaen work the blackbird (flute) flits and darts its intricate song, and the piano enters, playing the part of the ornithologist in a clumsy way, trying to echo and analyse the song. As the piece progresses, the flute continues on its merry way oblivious to the piano which gradually begins to make sense of the birdsong. By the end the flute is still oblivious of the piano, but the latter has now united with the flute to make a coherent musical union.
The second bird piece, Three birds, is by Ian Munro, the pianist in this concert. There are settings of verses from three different poets and they are scored for soprano, clarinet, cello and piano. Emily Dickinson’s “A bird came down” is a gentle observation, and has a softness that is reflected in the music. The change of focus in the last verse from the intimacy of the particular bird to the vastness of the oceans was well handled by the performers. The second setting is based on the 17th Century poems of Matsuo Bashō. These haiku like verses give an atmosphere that nothing contends; nature is at peace with itself. Here the voice is the emotive narrator for what the birds are doing in the instrumental parts. It was beautifully performed. The third setting is one of the Australian poet Judith Wright’s “Currawong”. The ambivalence between the gorgeousness of the song (appropriately scored for clarinet) and the threatening violence of the bird towards other birds is palpable in this very effective rendition.
In the second half of the concert, the above cast of instrumental performers was joined by Dimiti Hall on violin, Andrew Barnes on bassoon, Robert Johnson on horn and Andrew Meisel on double bass for Beethoven’s Septet in E flat major (Op 20). They were not on period instruments so the modern horn was occasionally a little on the strong side, but no complaints from me because the playing was excellent. The work was written for the Austrian Empress Maria Therese before Beethoven was 30, and it was for many years his most popular work. He already showed great self assurance as a composer, although it is firmly in the Classical style and there is little “Sturm und Drang” here that was to become such a feature of his later works.
The most astounding aspect of this performance for me was Dimity Hall’s consummate violin playing. Her tone was always warm and full and the sound perfectly considered for ensemble blending. Her intonation was impressive too, never the slightest glitch, and brightness was ever the consideration. Every time I hear Hall she seems, impossibly, better than the last. Smiles and Hall played in octaves with one voice as if they are husband and wife (which incidentally they are).
The whole ensemble was equally impressive really. They all played as if every note was intensely listened to and given the greatest attention. Nothing was tossed off.
I am always so impressed with the Australia Ensemble and I am clearly not alone in this. They have a faithful following right up to nonagenarians on respirators. There is dedication for you. The concert was a joy.
Australia Ensemble: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird | Saturday 13 Aug 2016 | John Clancy Auditorium, UNSW