Apart from the obvious 20th century theme, death seems to be a unifying factor too.
Martin Bresnick’s “My Twentieth Century” (2002) for string trio, flute, clarinet and piano is structurally based on a poem by Tom Andrews. Before each stanza is the line “My brother died in the twentieth century,” but there was much lightness in between. The instrumentalist took turns to come to the microphones two at a time and read the poem while the rest of the ensemble played. The performance of this engaging minimalist work was accurate and well balanced; the ensemble played with plenty of bite.
Sculthorp’s “Irkanda IV” (1961) arranged by the composer for flute and string quartet was written in the aftermath of the death of his father. “Irkanda” means “a remote and lonely place”. There is much sadness here, including what sounded like a funeral march, but always with intensity and warmth. Sculthorpe has a remarkable ability to evoke the rich Australian landscape from traditional European instruments, often achieved in this piece with the lower 3 strings playing chords with uneven rhythms while the first violin and flute flit around giving the landscape colour. The interpretation rendered by the ensemble showed a deep understanding of Sculthorp’s music.
Ravel’s “Duo for violin and cello” (1920) was written in the aftermath of the Great War and the death of his mother, but dedicated to the memory of Debussy who died in 1918. Often Ravel is seen as part of that French Debussy tradition but that does not fit here. I love this piece. It is stark and strident; more like Shostakovich than Debussy. To the credit of Dimity Hall (Violin) and Julian Smiles (Cello) the confident voice of Ravel’s compositional maturity shines through this often anguished music.
Elliott Carter’s “Esprit rude, esprit doux” (1985) for Flute and Clarinet is a short piece to commemorate Pierre Boulez’ 60th birthday. It is firmly in the style of Boulez’ “avant garde” with complex rhythms and furious atonal melodies zapping over the full range of the instruments. Plenty to hold the musical interest. It was played with intensity and precision by Geoffrey Collins (Flute) and David Griffiths (Clarinet).
The largest work of the program was Edward Elgar’s “Piano Quintet in A minor” Op.84 (1918). The ghostly opening showed great promise, but on the whole I found this piece to be a bit eclectic and sometimes trite. It felt like Elgar had to write a quintet, but his heart was not really in it. I also got the impression through the pastoral English style he would rather have been writing for string orchestra, but he did not have one of those. The textures fluctuated between palm court and Beethoven/Brahms and there was nothing musically challenging here in the harmonies. There is no comparison between this and the Ravel Duo. The audience gave it a warm response, which I feel was more for the Australia Ensemble’s passionate and sensitive performance than the quality of the composition. I was happy to hear this piece but will not be going out of my way to hear it again.
I have been going to Australia Ensemble concerts off and on since the 1980s. I am still so impressed by this ensemble. They have a loyal following with good reason. This was music making at its best and it is always worth the trek out to UNSW.
Australia Ensemble | My Twentieth Century | 18 April 2015 | John Clancey Auditorium, UNSW