The combination of PLEXUS and Greta Bradman might not have been a total panacea for the ills that beset us at the moment, but they did provide much needed consolation and an appropriate finale to Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s Michael Aquilina Chamber Music Festival.
The Festival opened on a joyous note with Dale Barltrop leading an outstanding ensemble of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra string players in Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major, The Trout,prefaced by the unexpected inclusion of Schubert’s original version sung quite charmingly by double bassist Stephen Newton accompanied by pianist Laurence Matheson. Christopher Cartlidge on viola and Rachel Tobin on cello completed the quintet as they launched a weekend of chamber music that reaffirmed the inestimable value of sharing music for players and listeners alike. Presenter Chris Howlett felt compelled to describe the happiness experienced by the musicians during the rehearsal process before each concert, and there was indeed a vitality and sense of camaraderie in all six performances, along with an appreciation of a virtual audience that included family members and friends around the world.
Champions of contemporary composers, PLEXUS ran true to form, beginning a program of commissioned works with a song cycle by notable Australian composer Anne Cawrse. Guest artist, soprano Greta Bradman joined the core trio of Monica Curro (violin), Philip Arkinstall (clarinet) and Stefan Cassomenos (piano) for Flame and Shadow, based on four poems (three complete, one extract) by the American poet Sara Teasdale from her fifth collection of poetry, Flame and Shadow.Teasdale describes the words she selected as speaking of “beauty, of true knowledge of self, and of the somewhat enigmatic and curious process of creating”. As Cassomenos explained when introducing the work, Cawrse started with the text, its essence best expressed in Teasdale’s words: “for it is my heart that makes the song”. Unfortunately, it was not always easy to decipher the words since clear enunciation is not among Bradman’s strongest points.
For their many concerts, PLEXUS consistently supplies the most comprehensive and helpful program notes of any local ensemble, but when the notes did eventually make it to our email boxes after the concert, unfortunately, they did not include Teasdale’s poems. The text for the Strauss songs were included, although those unfamiliar with the songs, or had no copy to hand, had to be content with the beauty of the music and the performance. In all likelihood, most listeners would have been more than happy to luxuriate in the sound of Bradman’s voice and enjoy the quality of the playing in both works. And when it comes to the relative importance of words and music – well, Strauss managed to compose a whole opera about that debate.
As it was, there was no shortage of musical meaning in these performances. Cawrse’s creation of what she calls sprinklings of “flickers of light”, “harmonic warmth heard alongside more subdued and hazy moments” and the juxtaposition of closed and open sound to reflect the direction of the text result in evocative soundscapes. All songs are marked by an affecting simplicity and sensitivity with a dominant character of gentle, melodious lyricism punctuated by occasional dramatic climaxes. The essence of these songs, so well suited to Bradman’s vocal gifts and personality, was clearly conveyed. Bradman’s superb breath control and her ability to sustain the softest high notes – her pure tone a thread of distant sound against often sparse accompaniment, and deliver a perfectly controlled diminuendo – all with consummate ease – were phenomenal.
The two vocal works bookended Mus Persequeris by Niko Schäuble, a very much in-demand German composer, arranger, jazz drummer, film producer and owner of the recording company Pughouse. Mus Persequeris was commissioned by PLEXUS and given its première as part of their 2016 Propulsion concert. He indicated much of the character of his work by revealing “the quick twists and turns in this piece remind me of Jerry being chased by Tom (or is it Sylvester chasing Speedy?).” Contrasting atmospheres are created as slower more meditative passages are interwoven with scurrying, darting syncopated passages. Clarinet, violin and piano are each given a role separately and in combination. As with the Cawrse, Schäuble’s piece ends with a repeated piano note, bell-like against a held note from the clarinet in the former, and a more insistent iteration leading to angular, spiky utterances from violin and clarinet in the latter.
The technical mastery and musicality that informed the performance of these two works could perhaps be most clearly seen in Cassomenos’s arrangement of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, if only because they are so familiar and expectations are so high. It is, however, partly in the nature of Strauss’s works that they lend themselves to pared down arrangements, the composer himself inserting extended passages for small ensembles within works for a large orchestra. Mind you, Ben Mansted’s arrangement of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony for three trombones and tuba, which we had heard the previous night, was a big ask – but surprisingly successful for all that. For well-known works the ear also tends to fill in some aural gaps so that a trombone can conjure up a mysterious orchestral wash, and the lush orchestration of Four Last Songs can still make its presence felt in the right hands.
Apart from the artistic arrangement and the fine playing of PLEXUS and guest musicians Michelle Wood (cello) and Damien Eckersley (double bass), it was Greta Bradman who made this performance a transcendent experience. Her voice possesses qualities that are eminently suited to this work – and not just the basic ones of accurate pitch, evenness of tone and the ability to spin out long, steady phrases with ease. There is a singular beauty and pathos in the timbre of her voice that goes straight to the listener’s emotional core, especially when she soared in those glorious yearning climaxes of Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep) as the soul takes flight. It was a shame that the microphone did not do justice to Monica Curro’s refined, tender playing of the sublime passage for solo violin. Although the final song, Abendrot (Sunset), is a deeply moving farewell, Cassomenos delivered those final poignantly hopeful flute trills notes of bird song in a way brought this much-loved song cycle to a perfect close.
As Chris Howlett signed off from the session, he remarked on how this was one of the more eerie experiences for him as he sat in an empty hall listening to this concert. It would be a shocking waste if this performance, or an ideally recorded version of it, were not released commercially. I felt sorry for people who had missed out on hearing something so special.
Heather Leviston reviewed Panacea performed by PLEXUS and guest artists Greta Bradman, Michelle Wood and Damien Eckersley as part Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s Michael Aquilina Chamber Music Festival, telecast from the Athenaeum Theatre on May 31, 2020.