Thoughts on the Way

Writings by composer and pianist Mark Isaacs

Category: Reviews

1000 Years of Classical Music: Mozart Opera Arias

Artist/s: Various singers with Australian orchestras
Label: ABC Classics ABC 481 5570
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

This is a very worthy volume from ABC Classics’ well-promoted CD set which in its entirety overviews 1000 years of “classical” music in 100 tracks.

Though the cover’s art and graphical style are rather tacky, the notes in the 28-page booklet are very informative. Each excerpted opera receives a plot summary within which each of the arias selected are given their particular dramatic contexts. There is a page of “Fast Facts” where some key terms (Opera seria, Opera buffa, Singspiel) are defined and a few snippets of information about Mozart and his operas are offered. In a somewhat tawdry mint-green box, key historical events of the year 1787 are presented – including that of Captain Arthur Philip setting off from Portsmouth with the First Fleet – this being the year Mozart completed his opera Don Giovanni four years before his death. All libretti excerpts are presented in their original Italian or German as well as with English translation, and the singers, orchestras, conductors and recording dates and locations are all meticulously credited. All in all, the listener is well provisioned for the sonic journey at hand.

Eight operas are excerpted: Don Giovanni, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), Idomeneo, La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus), Zaide, Cosi fan tutte (All Women Are Like That) and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).

Three of the operas are “Singspiel”: The Magic Flute, The Abduction from Seraglio and Zaide (which Mozart did not complete). A Singspiel had a libretto in German rather than Italian, with spoken (rather than sung) dialogue and was generally comic or romantic in nature.

In many ways Singspiel could be seen as the 18th century German equivalent of 20th century musical theatre (a play with songs). Though The Magic Flute is the only popular Mozartean Singspiel (he wrote six), and Mozart’s Italian language operas by far dominate the repertoire, I must confess I love hearing Mozart sung in German. The opening of the famous “Queen of the Night Aria” from The Magic Flute seems to foreshadow Wagner with its frighteningly declamatory “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (“The rage of Hell is boiling in my heart”). How Mozart manages in this aria to seamlessly juxtapose that soundworld – including its also rather Wagnerian “Hört, hört, hört” (“Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye”) – with the aria’s very famous coquettish coloratura passages is a marvel to behold. Devotees of Cosi, Figaro, Don Giovanni et al may well disagree, but The Magic Flute has most of the best tunes too.

The singers featured are in several cases stars of Australian opera like Joan Carden, Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Emma Matthews and they don’t disappoint. The most beguiling voice on the disk is that of soprano Sara Macliver: limpid, always telling and boasting exquisite intonation and phrasing. In Porgi amor (Love, give me some comfort) from The Marriage of Figaro she seems to unshakably inhabit a level of vocal sublimity not often found elsewhere on the disk. The only quibble about her singing – and also that of mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell – is a tendency to elide consonants and let them become subsumed too inaudibly into the stunning tone that carries them.

Most of the orchestral work is done by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and it, like the Opera Australia Orchestra, sounds superb accompanying opera. The Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra sound somewhat lumpier in this context. The conductors include some international heavyweights like Christopher Hogwood, György Fischer, Ola Rudner, Sebastian Lang-Lessing and Richard Bonynge as well as the more home-grown but highly-regarded Dobbs Franks, Nicholas Milton and Antony Walker.

This is mostly an exemplary disk. However the one excerpt featured from Idomeneo – also the only live recording on the disk – does jar a little with some intonation and other issues from tenor Mark Tucker, and some internal balance problems from the period instruments of the Orchestra of the Antipodes conducted by Antony Walker, which is otherwise pleasantly transparent and drivingly kinetic.

Every Mozart opera lover would probably shed a little tear for their favourites left out from the compilation, but it really is a shame that we don’t hear perhaps Mozart’s most beautiful aria of all time, Tamino’s Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (This image is enchantingly beautiful) from The Magic Flute. Another sad oversight is the non-inclusion of any of the great sextets, some of which are surely amongst Mozart’s most ingenious creations.

One interesting fact is that this selection contains both the highest and lowest vocal notes of the standard opera repertoire: the Queen of the Night’s high F’s in her aforementioned famous aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen from The Magic Flute, and the two low D’s called for from the bass in O, wie will ich triumphieren from The Abduction from the Seraglio.

Returning in closing to the analogy made between Singpiel and our own more contemporaneous musical theatre, it is worth remarking that the disk’s opening track Madamina, il catalogo è questo (Little lady, this is the catalogue) from Don Giovanni – where Don Giovanni’s servant Leporello gives a successive rundown of his master’s sexual conquests – is a “Catalogue Aria”, and that this particular form foreshadowed the 20th century’s “List Song” from the musical theatre and hit parade genres, the most famous example of the latter being Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover (which perhaps itself may have entitled a great Mozart comic opera: Cinquanta Modi per Lasciare L’Amante, anyone?).

This article was first published here.


Bach Beethoven Fugue: Richard Tognetti – Australian Chamber Orchestra – Live in Concert

Label: ABC Classics ABC 481 4960
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

This exquisite coupling made by Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra in bringing Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven together in a colloquy upon the subject of Fugue has a deep historical authenticity.

Bach’s music marries its outpourings of spiritual devotion with an unsurpassed intellectual rigour and a joyous revelry in the sheer sensuousness of tones. It now enters its fourth century of stopping people in their tracks to marvel again and again at its remarkable wonders. Representing both the climax of one musical era and the beginning of another, Bach brought Renaissance counterpoint to its apotheosis while opening the door to real freedom of musical modulation; he was the Founding Conjurer, the Wizard-in-Chief, harbinger of the delicious magical trick of passing through tonal wormholes to even the most remote of keys, setting the stage for Wagner and beyond.

In Beethoven we sense the titanic wounded hero, the iridescent genius struggling with valour against the forces that oppose him. Riding roughshod over musical conventions, stretching and distorting the containers into which the prevailing classical forms insisted music be poured, he wrenches from his aristocratic patrons any intimation of his artistic servitude. In his late works he confronts both immortality and a cruel mortality, his deafness an almost ecclesiastical martyrdom that, while silencing his world, sets him on a musical journey that attempts to point the way to the “Ground of Being” of existential philosophy, the “Quantum Vacuum” of particle physics.

Bach proves at every turn that Fugue is a gestalt within his creative imagination, while Beethoven’s life becomes in part a representation of his tortured wrestling toward this idealised form of musical expression, a quest that features noticeably within the tapestry of his later works.

In the world of Fugue, Bach is the master and Beethoven his most worthy disciple. It is interesting that the subjects of Beethoven’s Op. 133 Grosse Fugue essayed on this disk, and of his great fugue that is the first movement of the Op. 131 C# minor quartet, and even the quasi-fugal imitative opening of his Op. 132 A minor quartet, all display a series of semitone steps of two notes, separated by a wider interval. This is the same kind of patterning found in the B-A-C-H motto that Bach employed to spell out his own name in German musical nomenclature, and it is surely a striking signal of reverent hommage from one great master to another. Beethoven’s late works seem in part to be a reckoning with Bach on the matter of Fugue.

The disk begins with the first four of the Contrapunctus pieces from Bach’s The Art of Fugue. These are sometimes known as the “Simple Fugues”, “simple” being very much a relative term here, meaning only that they do not use the more complex fugal devices found in the later pieces. The Art of Fugue is the Bible of Fugue and these opening fugues are perhaps its Genesis story. Like the presence of the one God in the Bible, The Art of Fugue has just one musical subject (a short and in many ways unremarkable motif that is the DNA code for all the pieces). While clearly a didactic work, the music of The Art of Fugue is full of sensual beauty, glorious to the ears. Again, this is Bach’s genius at play; it is both unashamedly learned and unabashedly demotic. The ACO give us all this, and more.

The second work on the disk is Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130 in its “restoration mode”. The final movement that Beethoven originally wrote, which after its premiere was considered highly unsuitable and hived off to become the Grosse Fugue with its own opus number 133 while being replaced by a new finale, is now restored (as is often now the case) to its original place.

The quartet is in six movements, itself a revolutionary structure at the time and all the more so that two of the movements are uncompromisingly short. After the more conventional first movement (that still contains some rebellious irregularities of structure) the Presto lasts only two minutes, a folkish scherzo that contains a couple of deliberately vulgar moments (and, indeed, near the end Tognetti cheekily directs a few notes to be played pizzicato that were not so marked in the string quartet version, cleverly anticipating the urtext pizzicati soon to come in the opening of the next movement).

The third Andante movement is distinguished by a stately but yearning poise, charmingly realised by the ACO, as are the interrupting elements of controlled disintegration that can be a feature of Beethoven’s late style.

The following dance movement is a gently rustic romp, with some cross-rhythms that almost anticipate Brahms, and an ending that peters out before it finishes.

Then comes the glorious Cavatina, one of Beethoven’s most lyrical utterances and almost Schubertian in its feeling. The ACO is at its lyrical best here, even including one sweet portamento (slide), though it is not the only time I’ve regretted the ignoring of two instances of subito pianos (sudden drops to quiet) that Beethoven marks in order to snatch from under our feet the expected climax of the preceding crescendi.

The Grosse Fugue finale is around sixteen minutes and is a bewildering creation that unsurprisingly shocked so many at the time, and still can. It is more than a fugue, but rather a sectionally-layered structure that gives birth to, and shrouds, its fugues. In some ways, the Grosse Fugue is a symphonic structure all by itself, in the manner of Sibelius’ great seventh symphony where the movements are run seamlessly together. Aesthetically and in its formal design, it could be linked with Beethoven’s other giant fugue-based movement, the finale of the Hammerklavier piano sonata.

Technically, the Grosse Fugue is a tour de force in its unrelenting energy – even the passages of repose that interrupt present their own structural problems – and it is often a thicket of displaced and conflicting rhythms and accents. Add to that the constant crossing of parts and other roadblocks and you have a performer’s nightmare of a masterpiece, which is completely and utterly nailed here.

Indeed, Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra have touched monumental greatness in realising these supreme masterworks for string orchestra and releasing this disk of their live performances.

A string orchestra is not the original medium of either work, but in the case of The Art of the Fugue there are no instrumental forces specified. Fittingly for a musical treatise on fugue – and perhaps to some extent redolent of all of Bach’s music – the core of the musical argument is in the juxtaposition of the notes rather than the textures, the “what” rather than the “how”.

One of the major achievements of the ACO in these works is that it never sounds like a string orchestra. Other than the presence of the double bass (more on that later) the orchestra sounds like a master string quartet that has been zoomed in upon. The sound is larger than a string quartet, but not thicker or juicier.

The lushness and density of a conventional string orchestra (or the string section in a symphony orchestra) come from a subtle but distinct lack of unanimity. Multiple players on a single note are not perfectly in tune with each other and this produces a pitch effect known as “beating”, whereby overlapping sound waves of different frequency create interesting perturbations in the sonic texture. Individual vibratos are also not exactly aligned in speed and pitch latitude, bringing more perturbations still. It is a ”chorus effect” that is justly loved in choirs and string sections, even sometimes in wind bands.

Remarkably, the ACO manages to sound like there’s one giant player on each note or multiple-stopped chord. Of course the smaller numbers of sectional participants in chamber, rather than symphony, strings is a distinct aid in this, but it is nonetheless striking just how superbly it is done here. The accuracy of sectional intonation is frightening, ensuring we don’t hear those perturbations (except very occasionally up high where they creep in quite innocuously when absolute unanimity of pitch becomes humanly impossible due to diminishing fingerboard tolerances).

The other aspect at play is that vibrato is eschewed, appearing only once in a blue moon, and very briefly, on the most lyrical of lines. Playing without vibrato is now standard practice for authentic Bach performance, but not so in late Beethoven. But whereas a single player’s vibrato in a string quartet does not take away from the feeling of one player, its invariably variegated (pardon the expression!) individual manifestations within a string section will quickly signal that there are ranks of players at hand. Leaving vibrato out of the Beethoven was likely part of a strategy to keep the work sounding like a quartet.

Imagine one of the great string quartets of the world: full of deft, powerful and sweetly limpid playing plus a razor-sharp musical intelligence. Then put it under a magnifying glass, and watch it grow larger without losing a skerrick of those qualities, the finer proportions remaining fully intact with no extraneous intercessions. Finally, give it “big boots” in the form of a double bass, and now you’ll get the idea. It bespeaks a marvel of discipline to hear the ACO achieve this.

Acknowledgment must be made of the mechanics of transliteration. Richard Tognetti skilfully arranged the Beethoven quartet for string orchestra. In the case of The Art of Fugue an arranger is not really needed, and none is credited. The work often appears printed in “open score” rather than a keyboard “grand staff”, meaning each voice has its own stave and can be read off by the appropriate instrument or section.

However, even in The Art of Fugue there is a small arranging point in regard to the double bass, which sounds an octave lower than written. A decision must be made whether to have the bassist read the notes an octave higher, so that they sound where Bach or Beethoven wrote them, or to allow displacement down the octave (or possibly two octaves).

There is plenty of justification for the notes to sound in lower octave transposition, as this is a staple of organ music (with its 16’ and 32’ couplings) and also is a standard technique in string orchestration, where the basses often double the celli at the octave. The “lower octave” forays of the bass on this disk often include using the “extension” notes, a refinement that expands the range of the double bass down from low E to C, either by an extended fingerboard or a fifth string.

In one sense it might seem jarringly anachronistic to hear these lowest bass notes – commonly thought to be a development of the twentieth century – included in the music of Bach and Beethoven. However, in Beethoven’s case, the double basses in Vienna had a fifth string in classical times, enabling them to go down to the C, a note Schubert uses in the Unfinished Symphony. In any case, the tessitura is employed with such telling effect here that any squeamishness must be cast aside. It is an unalloyed joy to hear Maxime Bibeau’s gently tolling low Eb on the first chord of Beethoven’s Cavatina, and the low D heard in some of the cadences in the Bach evoke a 16’ or even 32’ organ stop. However, the bass octave doubling in the third fugal subject statement in the exposition of Contrapunctus I is less effective, taking away some of the clean austereness of the initial fugal entries, and there are a few other times in the Bach – for example in the lead up to cadences – where the lower octave bass doubling device seems overused and could be held back a little longer for all the better effect when it finally does arrive.

The more off-the-string giocoso style of playing given to the dotted rhythms in Contrapunctus II is not to my taste, and a heavier, more connected portato style of playing – such as used by Glenn Gould on the piano in this movement – would bring out a more apposite mood of austere grandeur.

In a very contemporary masterstroke of bold arranging, in Contrapunctus IV the strings seem to play pizzicato throughout (actually my ears tell me the bass is playing detached, short arco notes, but the actual effect is all pizz.), and players also sing along! At first, as the latter crept in, I thought it was inadvertent, as musicians will sometimes unconsciously sing quietly as they play. But as things coalesced toward the final sung-and-played chord it soon became apparent it was deliberate. I was surprised however that the trill in this movement was not played. The sustaining sound of a few players’ pizz would have surely allowed the trill to be carried by the left hand alone without employing any mandolin-like techniques in the right.

A disk like this should show yet again to the world stage that the Australian Chamber Orchestra is not only at the peak of instrumental accomplishment, but has a breadth of vision that allows it to make revelatory, fresh and intertextual statements about the most supreme masterworks of the Western musical canon, whilst also famously pioneering so much of what is new and bold in twenty-first century music-making.

This article was first published here

Valley of Rocks – Piano music composed and performed by Miriam Hyde

Label: Wirripang Wirr 085
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

First, I’ll declare some interests. I knew, and adored, Miriam Hyde. She came to my home once, and we often exchanged letters – the old-fashioned way – hers in beautiful handwriting and flowery language; I have treasured them. I was the winner of the first (and only) Miriam Hyde Composer-Pianist Award, and one of my short piano pieces was published in a folio of piano works by various Australian composers intended as a tribute to her, following her death.

Miriam went into the studio and recorded this CD comprising selections from her solo piano works in 1993, which was her 80th year. It has just been re-released, and that is a very good thing indeed.

Miriam was a truly consummate musician.

The decades of High Modernism were not kind to composers of her style, but it is surely time to take off such blinkers. Now that composers once again set out to write boldly lyrical, playful, grand or tender music that has its roots, however extrapolated, in traditional tonal harmony, it would be instructive for them to compare their own craftsmanship and emotional range to that of Miriam Hyde’s.

As to her pianism, its shows absolutely no sign at all of any burred edges that might have been expected given her advanced age at the time of recording. It’s bold and brassy where needed (which is much of the time!) and warm and singing elsewhere (although qualities of lyrical warmth tend not be heightened in her touch albeit written indelibly into her music; pianistically she is more in her element as a pugilist). Her technique carries the assured confidence of the supreme virtuoso – for that she undoubtedly was – and many of her pieces are demanding virtuosic concert works, or otherwise contain passages of such a nature.

The disk proceeds roughly chronologically through her compositions, covering works composed between 1934 and 1987.

In early pieces like Fantasia on Waltzing Matilda, Rhapsody No. 1 in F sharp minor and Concert Study No. 3 in C# minor which were written around the age of 22, one is not surprised to find a highly derivative quality (especially of the composer-pianist Rachmaninov, who was still alive at the time of their writing, and whom Miriam told me she had heard perform in concert on several occasions). However, what is startling in someone so young is the unerring assurance of craft, the powerful compositional facility. Harmony, form, counterpoint, melodic shape and instrumental figuration were completely under her control in a spectacularly accomplished way that was truly precocious for someone who was still an undergraduate student at the time.

In Magpies at Sunrise (a typically bucolic title) written in 1946, one starts to hear a bolder and more experimental harmonic language, with elements of late Impressionism (like early Dutilleux), and of harmonic dissidents like Scriabin. There is even something of the musical ornithology of a Messiaen in its pianistic “bird calls” (Messiaen himself didn’t hear and transcribe the calls of Australian birds until his 1988 visit to Australia). The antic tonal shifts are now more sudden and the scales more unusual, including the Lydian mode with flattened 7th (known in jazz circles as the “Lydian Dominant” mode, a scale featured in the theme from TV’s The Simpsons).

In the virtuosic Brownhill Creek in Spring (1942) one senses perhaps an influence of another pastoral Australian composer, the great Percy Grainger who was 31 years her senior. The Ring of New Bells from this same period features some unusual tintinnabulations achieved by struck chord blocks that evoke the overtones of bells. It was composed to celebrate the acquisition of a set of bells for St. Paul’s Church in Burwood, the inner-west Sydney suburb in which Miriam lived.

Unsurprisingly, the Sonata in G minor is the meatiest work on the disk, and we now hear elements of a Hindemithean austerity alongside the warmly lyrical forays, as well as some hints of a Prokoviev-like bitter steeliness. This is a wild and masterly sonata, an imposing and unusual structure and an exhausting but rewarding journey to the depths and heights of human emotion.

The disk concludes with tracks featuring virtuoso fireworks (Scherzo Fantastico and Concert Study No. 3 in G# minor), an Iberian foray (Evening in Cordoba), and some pastoral gems that still brim with mercurial virtuosity (Reflected Reeds, Valley of Rocks and Water Nymph).

This disk contains more than one hour of extremely – sometimes impossibly – difficult piano music performed, at the age of 80, impeccably, energetically and with unfettered élan by the woman who composed it. I am racking my brains to think of anyone on the planet who has done something similar, in any generation. There have of course been a few other 80-year-olds still able to record a disk of solo virtuoso repertoire to perfection, but one consisting entirely of their own compositions? No-one else comes to mind from my travels through the international record catalogues. Performer-composers are an extremely rare breed in classical music in any case, and few manage to maintain both disciplines at a high level even into middle, let alone old, age.

Australia is remarkable, given what we know of the gender strictures of the era, in having produced four highly-lauded female composers whose year of birth was around the time that the nineteenth century became the twentieth. They are Miriam Hyde (born 1913), Dulcie Holland (also 1913), Margaret Sutherland (1897) and Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912). To my mind Miriam Hyde is the very finest of them all, and moreover she easily equalled in her razor-sharp craft that of her male contemporaries like Raymond Hanson (1913) and John Antill (1904). Considering her additional brilliant pianistic accomplishments and her remarkable dedication to music education, Miriam Hyde was surely the most formidable and important Australian composer of her generation.

This article was first published here


Jayson Gillham – Music by Medtner & Rachmaninoff

Artist/s: Jason Gillham, piano / Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Northey / Music by Medtner & Rachmaninoff
Label: ABC Classics ABC 481 5564
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

This album both inspires and frustrates.

Jayson Gillham is a young Australian pianist, raised in rural Queensland, who only quite recently turned 30, and has seen considerable success on the international stage. That is something to celebrate wholeheartedly with an unfettered spirit of congratulation.

Gillham’s playing on this disc displays the assured technical pianism one might expect in a prize-winner at international competitions who has launched a significant worldwide career, as well as offering a quite mature approach to musical phrasing and the finely-balanced layering of textures – often occurring near-simultaneously in most registers of the piano – that is stock-in-trade of late Romantic piano literature.

This is no more evident than in Medtner’s Prologue ‘The Angel’, Op. 1 No. 1, one of two solo piano works that frame this CD of two concerti. This early work of Medtner’s (he composed it at age 17) is a tour-de-force of stratified musical ideas, producing a gripping orchestral-like texture. Gillham brings it off magisterially, taking care of all the layers at all times and drawing the listener into Medtner’s potent and telling soundworld.

The Medtner legacy is the other cause for celebration, in its connection to the great Australian pianist Geoffrey Tozer, who led a mercurial and ultimately rather tragic life. Tozer was a devotee of Medtner’s music, and was indeed the first pianist to record all of this little-known Russian composer’s piano music. I already have in my collection Tozer’s disc of Medtner’s piano concerti Nos. 2 & 3, recorded with the London Philharmonic under Neeme Järvi for the Chandos label (it is known that former Prime Minister Paul Keating championed Tozer to this prestigious international label and otherwise was an ardent supporter of the pianist).

Gillham explains in the CD booklet that he was involved in the documentary film about Tozer The Eulogy, and from there his connection to Medtner followed, and thus came his recording for this disc of Medtner’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

So this is something else that inspires. A strong and now ongoing Australian component (with the involvement of ABC Classics) bringing greater visibility to the music of this relatively unknown Russian master (and including in the historical process some Prime Ministerial oversight no less!).

Medtner and Rachmaninoff were born three years apart, and there are strong connections between their styles. Indeed they were good friends for most of their lives and shared their musical ideas in a kind of dialogue. Medtner’s music is not as ravishingly beautiful as his great friend’s, but often has a stronger intellectual fibre. In Rachmaninoff, the Apollonian and Dionysian instincts were balanced very much in favour of the latter (though he was no wallflower intellectually, as evidenced by his stunning contrapuntal inner textures, unexpected modulations and thoughtful orchestrations). In Medtner these twin instincts seem more in balance, equally weighted. Probably it is the imbalance itself – that unashamed leaning toward the sensual and devotional – which gives Rachmaninoff’s music the much more enduring canonic edge, and indeed its strong popularity with audiences.

Medtner’s more questing spirit can be seen in the formal structure of his Piano Concerto No. 1, a single continuous movement with internal seams that only suggest the more traditional multi-movement concerto structure. Boldly iconoclastic too is the concerto’s end: three single-note unaccompanied thumps at the very bottom end of the piano, like the proverbial tolling bells. The rhythms, too, in Medtner are more adventurous than Rachmaninoff’s mostly more square-cut phraseology. But though melodic, in Medtner there are few truly great tunes such as Rachmaninoff gives us at almost every turn.

Gillham surmounts all the challenges of this very difficult concerto without a hitch.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under their Associate Conductor Benjamin Northey does little to truly inspire on this recording. Northey is a very fine technician, whose amiable and unintrusive approach means an orchestra can get on with the job while trusting that the ever-sure direction emanating from the podium will keep things together and balanced. That is certainly no mean feat in itself! However this kind of dispassionate and non-demanding style, that tends to avoid real exhortation, means that the music is not often on the edge of its seat emotionally-speaking. Solos, whether from wind or brass individual players, or from the string sections, are rarely shaped sufficiently, or bear enough emotional fortitude, to be viscerally moving. An international-standard orchestra should not sound as competently workmanlike as the MSO does on this recording. This is not helped by some questionable mixing. Both the Medtner and Rachmaninov concerti open with piano figurations that are mere accompaniment for melodies in the strings, but the piano is mixed too much in the foreground and swamps the tunes.

The decision to pair Medtner’s first piano concerto with Rachmaninoff’s warhorse second concerto could be either a cynical record company marketing move, or a genuine desire by the artists to make a fresh reading of what remains still a great, though hackneyed, work. In the disk notes Gillham says he and Northey were intent on “casting off our habits and expectations of how this piece should be played” but the result is dismal. What is “cast off” is the work’s deep and telling well of lyricism, its strongest suit after all! This is a lacklustre and bland reading.

Pairing a Medtner concerto with a Rachmaninoff makes complete sense, but why not Rachmaninoff’s neglected fourth concerto? It is, after all, dedicated to Medtner, and indeed, only a few weeks before this disk was recorded, Northey did a fine job conducting it with another stellar young Australian pianist Simon Tedeschi and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Also disappointing is Gillham’s reading of Rachmaninoff’s great Prelude in D major, Op. 23 No. 4 which is cantered through insouciantly, with little sense of the exquisitely poised lingering and deeply tender searching with which it is surely redolent, such that the normally shattering climax, when it eventually arrives, seems enervatingly matter-of-fact.

This review was first published here


Michelle Nicole

Michelle Nicole
Keep Your Heart Right
Newmarket NEW 3108.2

Jazz instrumentalists often have unkind words to say about so-called “girl singers”. I do not believe this is underpinned by sexism from their mostly male ranks. For a start I have heard accomplished female jazz instrumentalists make similar remarks!

There is no doubt there is an epidemic of cabaret/show singers masquerading as jazz singers. And though one occasionally encounters a male version of the species, overwhelmingly it is the female variety that makes it presence felt.

So what distinguishes the genuine jazz singer from the impostor, given that they frequently tackle the same material from the Great American Songbook?

Quite simply real jazz singers are also jazz musicians. They have the subtlety and fluidity of (poly)rhythmic phrasing that enables them to swing with masterful assurance. They fully understand the harmonic structure of the piece that they are singing and so are able to improvise variations on the melody, whether by way of ornamentation to the actual melody or in the form of an actual improvised “scat” solo.

They don’t simply stand in front of a backing band, they are an integral member of the ensemble itself, aware of the subtleties of what the instrumentalists are doing and reacting spontaneously to the gift of the moment.

They often compose their own material. And while they take pride in their appearance on stage as their male colleagues (hopefully!) also do, overtly forced and superficially self-conscious “glamour” is not really an integral part of the equation.

On all of the above counts is Melbourne-based Michelle Nicole not only a jazz singer, but a jazz singer par excellence. She is very comfortable to anchor herself to the “core” tradition of jazz singing and it is precisely in this area that she shines. She is without question at the very forefront of jazz singing in this country, a mature artist who has clearly worked hard for (and has realised) very high standards of real musicianship as well as the ability to communicate with an audience.

There is a grace and ease about all that she does that is extremely endearing. It is impossible not to like this woman’s singing, as one basks in the coolness of her phrasing and her warm and affecting sound (that only very occasionally becomes a little strained and harsh in the higher register).

She is full of surprises, whether it be as subtle as an unusually placed note or as overt as the up-tempo arrangement of Jimmy van Heusen’s Darn That Dream, which I have never heard done at other than a ballad tempo. There are three Michelle Nicole originals on the CD – all have music by Nicole, and two have her lyrics too. They are all strong, interesting songs.

Nicole is at one with her excellent band, such that one hears a true quartet in action. Geoff Hughes’ brilliantly understated yet masterful guitar provides unwavering support and brilliant solos, Ronny Ferella’s drums are tasteful and deft (though occasionally in a slightly more urgent place than the other performers) and Howard Cairns is a very accomplished double bassist who would do well to inject himself into the overall brew with even more presence.

It did trouble me that the first three tracks on the CD all had brooding openings in G minor – while not disastrous, this is without a doubt careless programming.

Nicole refers in the liner notes to this album as a “‘warts and all’ dream” – obviously alluding to the minor glitches that must be a part of any live recording. In fact it is a credit to Nicole and her colleagues that there are precious few of these. By and large this album pulls off the remarkable feat of combining the sort of polish one finds in a studio production with the spontaneity of live recording. They are aided by an excellent recorded sound from engineer Mal Stanley. I would have liked to know where the recording was made. The combination of what is obviously a smallish crowd with the absence of jazz venue noise suggest it was made in a studio with an invited audience.

By the end of the CD, I had a certain hunger for a broader range of colours from Nicole. The warm and endearing quality in her voice can be its own worst enemy if not offset by a sufficient proportion of contrasting colours. Her sound walks up to you and gives you a big hug. What is missing from her voice are the colours of pathos and edge, of trouble and strife. To my mind, Nicole’s voice “smiles” too much of the time. This is especially noticeable when the lyric is going in another direction entirely, for example the first few lines of Irving Berlin’s Be Careful, It’s My Heart:

Be careful, it’s my heart
It’s not my watch you’re holding, it’s my heart
It’s not the note I sent you that you quickly burned
It’s not the book I lent you, that you never returned

The tone of these lines is open to interpretation, but the possibilities lie on a spectrum between the pathos of a tormented plea and the confronting assertion of a final warning. Yet Nicole’s rendition lacks the “edge” that something on this spectrum would inevitably have – she tends to smile and coo her way through it as if she wasn’t really mindful of the meaning of what she was singing.

There is no question that Nicole is a great singer. She would break through to levels approaching the transcendental if as well as charming her audience, she sometimes confronted her listeners with a raw emotion that would pick them up and shake the living daylights out of them.


Fiona Burnett

Fiona Burnett
Soaring at Dawn
Suite for jazz trio and string quartet
ABC Jazz 067 199-2

This is a CD that really does ravish you straight away.

That Fiona Burnett is in all respects a virtuoso soprano saxophonist is evident from her extended unaccompanied playing that comprises Solitude, the first movement of this six-part suite. Burnett manages to evoke a transcendental mood of awe and reverence, leavened by some simply stunning filigree work that is in no way gratuitous. All is knitted together by a magnificent sound and impeccable intonation on an instrument which poses a major challenge in these vexed areas to even the finest players.

Burnett possesses an unfailing sense of line, her improvisations following an inner logic in which there is almost no rhetoric but pure invention and despite the deep emotionality of what she plays there is always present an unswerving sense of real control in her playing.

In the third movement Flight and the final movement Daylight Burnett shows that hard-edged, boisterous angularity also comes easily to her as the music takes off like a startled flock of birds. She also shows that she can use the tortured extremities of the instrument’s range to powerful and controlled effect.

Joining Burnett in the jazz trio part of the configuration is bassist Ben Robertson and drummer David Jones.

Robertson is a deft and lyrical soloist and a reliable ensemble stalwart who adds a very telling and human dimension to any group of which he is a part, although there are times where a more robust, earthy approach to his instrument would seem to be desirable.

Jones is an unsurpassed virtuoso and an original thinker on his instrument, whose ability to make his extraordinarily fleet figurations appear and disappear in an instant sometimes punctures the more reverent moods with just a hint of the flippancy of a stage magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

The string quartet is the Silo String Quartet, and it is apparent from the liner notes that at least the cellist Caerwen Martin is a capable improviser, providing an accomplished quasi-Indian solo in the fifth movement Raga. It appears that the rest of the music for the quartet is notated.

The quartet plays very well though they are mixed rather far back in the otherwise excellent sound production by Mal Stanley, making it difficult to fully assess their tone and ensemble. However it is clear that they are not fazed by the rhythmic problems of hooking up with a rhythm section in full flight (presumably without a conductor since none is credited).

About Fiona Burnett the composer I have a few reservations. Certainly the suite is a pleasing concept and architecture presenting a nicely balanced variety of very telling moods. But on the whole, I would say the playing far surpasses the writing. The actual writing is more of a vehicle that catalyses some powerful material from the players without being particularly memorable in and of itself. What Burnett has written certainly doesn’t leave a comparable impression to that which her playing does, though what Burnett and her colleagues play in response to her writing makes for a very strong musical statement indeed.

Unfortunately this deficiency is amplified by the fact that Burnett’s string quartet scoring is rather unimaginative, consisting of far too many long notes in rhythmic unison (with the exception of Raga, where this effect is clearly used as a deliberate and admirable device to evoke an Indian droned instrument). The string quartet tradition is distinguished by its propensity for real counterpoint and true independence of line. It seems a shame when this is watered-down to “pads” in rhythmic unison. I am sure that if Burnett stretched herself she would be capable of far more than this and if she hasn’t already done so should study the Debussy or Ravel string quartets to see what is possible from a string quartet in a deeply impressionistic context such as hers.

However, despite this the overall impact of the work (and particularly Burnett’s actual playing) is quite profound and is likely to deeply touch many listeners across both the jazz and classical genres to whom the critical points I have raised may not be much of an issue.


Malcolm Williamson

Malcolm Williamson
Complete Works for Piano
Antony Gray, piano
ABC 472 902-2

During my high school and University years in the 1970s when I began to mix within the Sydney “new music” scene as a budding composer I recall that the name of Australian composer Malcolm Williamson was invariably invoked with a snigger of derision by most of those whom I looked up to for guidance.

In retrospect this can surely be viewed through the prism of the much-vaunted “Tall Poppy Syndrome” welded not only to the then stifling artistic “correctness” imposed by an all-pervasive and stringently ideological interpretation of the idea of  “Modernism” but also to general political correctness itself.

It seems to me that Williamson’s “sins” were as follows.

Firstly, he was too successful and this success manifested in a highly politically inappropriate way. In 1975 he was appointed to the position of Master of the Queen’s music, the first non-British composer to hold the post. In Australia he was viewed as a kind of traitor in accepting such a prestigious position in another country and given that it was a royal appointment he betrayed in the most spectacular way possible the “anti-establishment” ethos thought proper for artists in the late twentieth century, in particular grating against the basic republicanism that naturally informed such polemical forces within Australia.

Secondly, his music was too eclectic for its time and largely too accessible. Williamson approached composition in a way that is accepted as the norm now but at the time was highly suspect. Musical means were not an end in themselves – he used whatever techniques were appropriate to extract the core of the particular piece he was writing. Some of his music was astringently non-tonal, such as in the Sonata No. 2 where he used serial techniques. In other works, particularly those intended as teaching works (such as the various “Travel Diaries”), the harmonic language is often tonal and highly accessible. His music also contains within its reach moods and colours firmly rejected in the new concert music of the time: humour, charm, elegance and flippancy for example. This music always has “line” in a way that was not often part of the armoury of the largely University-based composers of the period: it can almost always be listened to within the rubric of a conventional music syntax of some kind. Most unforgivably, audiences liked it.

This 3-CD set contains four sonatas, a set of five Preludes, the teaching pieces that consist of the five Travel Diaries (Sydney, Naples, London, Paris and New York) as well as Haifa Watercolours and The Bridge that van Gogh painted and the French Camargue, the Variations for Piano, Ritual of Admiration and Hymna Titu.

Pianist Antony Gray has worked directly with Williamson and has written the excellent liner notes and the candid biography containing many first-hand personal insights that appear in the CD booklet. He is in all respects a staunch advocate for Williamson’s work.

Gray has great cleanliness and heightened surety of touch that serve to make the composer’s textures refreshingly transparent – nothing is swallowed or muffled as the music’s lines and layers are starkly etched within the listener’s ear. His technique is prodigious: crisp and biting where needed while filigree passages are woven with a sense of abandonment to their intricacy. At the same time I find the sound-world overall could reveal a wider depth of colour: the piano rarely sings in a deeply affecting and telling cantabile, pianissimos do not melt into a reverent yet lithe hush and the pedalling is not often strategically atmospheric. Nonetheless, while eschewing this degree of emotional engagement with the material Gray’s is honed and extremely robust playing that articulately advocates every detail of the text. It is clearly also a massive achievement to sustain such an impeccably high level of performance quality as one finds here across nearly three hours of music.

This release is highly important and one to be firmly celebrated, coming as it does in the year of the composer’s death and at a time when according to Gray “there is barely a note of [Williamson’s] music in the CD catalogues”. Gray and ABC music should be firmly congratulated for single-handedly providing a powerful redress to this unfortunate situation and it is very fitting that this has been done in Australia – clearly one of our most important and successful composers has been grossly neglected both here and internationally.

In closing I would like to reflect on Gray’s assessment of Williamson as “one of the great composers of the 20th century”. Having listened to all three CDs I have been left with the impression of a composer who demonstrated a prolific facility, impeccable craftsmanship and a brilliantly wide variety of vocabulary and means. However I was not struck with an over-arching vision or a driving need to reveal a deeply personal engagement with the universe, rather more a sense that he is toying with his ideas from a distance, that they are in some way “specimens” that he has found along the way which he astutely and industriously collates in variegated ways for our pleasure (and there is considerable pleasure here).

Williamson seems generously charming, a great and articulate musical conversationalist on a wide range of topics, clever and engaging even when saying the more difficult things. Nonetheless I want to ask this formidable man what made his soul cry or sing with joy in the long dark nights because I have not yet found the answers here as I have so clearly found them when encountering work that seems to indisputably carry that ineffable aroma of “greatness”.