Press, Play: Sweet is the Torment

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Published: 6th December, 2017

On November 29,exactly twenty-four hours after a riveting performance by Ensemble Offspring another acclaimed Australian contemporary ensemble took the Salon stage. At first glance, Press, Play seemed a continuation of the previous night’s concert with a vibraphone prominent among the array of percussion instruments, and a grand piano and flute/piccolo at the ready. A vivid red toy piano was a luminous exception to the set-up while the screen at the back of the stage of the Melbourne Recital Centre, Salon promised a further dimension.

Although Press, Play’s program differed markedly by including five works by Claudio Monteverdi, these seventeenth century masterpieces were presented in arrangements commissioned by pianist Sonya Lifschitz for performance by Press, Play. Paul Sarcich’s performance background in percussion and voice made him an obvious choice. In 1999 he had also composed a work commissioned by mezzo-soprano Alexandra Sherman, who shared the vocal component of this concert with soprano Merlyn Quaife. Sarcich provided modern realisations of three Monteverdi arias: Si dolce è’il tormento, Lamento d’Arianna, Con che soavità, and the duet Pur ti miro, from the Coronation of Poppea for this ensemble of voices, flutes, percussion and piano. Monteverdi’s popular Lamento della Ninfa was arranged by celebrated pianist and composer, Ian Munro. In all of these re-imaginings Monteverdi’s essential structures and texts were observed, with rhythmic drive generating emotional impetus.

Sally Cooper’s videos provided a visual continuity that wove the parts together seamlessly. There was no thought of applause until the end of the concert even though diverse compositions were interposed between the Monteverdi items. The sense of timelessness that Sonya Lifschitz spoke about at the beginning of the concert was in fact created by imaginative choices that linked styles, textures and visual effects. The gong stroke that began the concert proper at the beginning of Giacinto Scelsi’s Hyros established an atmosphere of ancient ritual while the subtle video backdrop suggested primeval droplets of water. With assured playing from Lina Andonovska on alto flute and Kaylie Melville on percussion it was a gripping experience. The visual component became less abstract for the Monteverdi pieces, as images gradually resolved into profiles and pieces of text. Alexandra Sherman’s rich mezzo negotiated the long phrases of the arias with considerable expressiveness although intonation was occasionally compromised amidst the sometimes elusive tonality of the arrangements.

A consummate musician with a formidable technique, Merlyn Quaife met the challenges of Munro’s arrangement convincingly, her voice floating off into the distance as she walked lamenting through the audience and out the door. The inclusion of the toy piano and tambourine plus some beautiful percussion effects at the end produced inventive textures and emotional power. The sobbing rhythms of the nymph’s lament were followed directly by Arianna’s lament, a more overtly theatrical piece sung with conviction and dramatic colour by Sherman.

The following two items were based on the text “Si Dolce è il Tormento”, which also inspired the title of the concert. The first version by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (the only female composer in this concert) calls for the solo piccolo player to breathe into the instrument, murmuring and declaiming the text and interweaving flights of demanding passages complete with flutter tongue and other sonic effects. It was a virtuoso feat on the part of Andonovska. Accompanied by an undulating piano, vibraphone and flute, Merlyn Quaife gave a fine performance of the melodious Monteverdi arrangement, finishing on a beautifully focused, soft, high note.

Some of the most arresting performances came from the infectiously enthusiastic Lifschitz herself. Her commitment and technical brilliance shone in selections from George Crumb’s Makrokosmos and the arrangement of J. S. Bach’s Chaconne in D minor by Brahms and Moreno. She made compelling musical sense of the Crumb, maintaining rhythmic momentum as she moved between the piano’s strings and keyboard, sometimes whispering, sometimes exclaiming. It was almost as if she were summoning mystical beings as she hovered over the piano, the text an incantation. Her Bach displayed such command that it was difficult to believe that only her left hand was involved. Warmth, power and generosity of spirit could all be heard in a performance requiring a great deal of stamina. The antiphonal effect of the two voices in long phrases added further weight and solemnity.

Some of the arrangement of the final duet from The Coronation of Poppea, with its tinkling fast middle section may not have been to everybody’s taste, but had its appeal. The large audience gave the performers an enthusiastic reception with many bravos. It is heartening to see that Press, Play’s initiative, creativity, skill and artistry have attracted an increasingly large band of followers. Contemporary music has a bright future while we have ensembles such as this.