In a program at the Melbourne Recital Centre paying homage to British composer Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012), Inventi Ensemble featured three of his shorter works alongside one each by four of his contemporaries: Oliver Knussen, Michael Finnissy, Edwin Roxburgh and Peter Maxwell Davies.
Melissa Doecke, the flautist of Inventi Ensemble’s core trio of virtuoso musicians, is in an ideal position to give an informed interpretation of Harvey’s music as she worked in detail with him on the final item on this program Run Before Lightning. As part of intensive preparation for a Prom concert, he explained in detail how there was a reason for every note of his composition. Inspired by having a nightmare about being caught in a storm, Harvey invokes the terror of feeling that he might die as the piano rumbles and crashes and the flute whips up powerful gusts between calmer but ominous moments. The piece ends with rippling trills as storm and exhausted runner are spent. An excited audience was with the runner all the way, swept up in the turmoil of a sonic flight recreated by the superbly coordinated skills of Doecke and Peter de Jager.
Although Doecke was not playing her flute in the opening work, she was in charge of the electronic component of Harvey’s Ricercare una melodia from 1985. With Ben Opie exploring his oboe’s expressive possibilities, a five-part canon was achieved by means of a tape-delay system channeled through a speaker in each corner of the Salon. Although originally written for trumpet, the eponymous sought-after melody found an eloquent exponent in Opie.
Masksis one of Knussen’s earliest works and displays a remarkable level of complexity, especially for a 17-year-old. He instructs the flautist to wander around the room, grimace and jerk at appointed times. Doecke’s playing was riveting as she moved between four separated music stands. As the work progressed the utterances became more insistently conversational until the final argument between impassioned volubility and increasingly meek short-phrased responses became the nearest thing to actual speech that I have ever heard. I felt like a child on the brink of finding adult speech intelligible.
Finnissy’s 1978 composition Runnin’ Wild was imbued with plenty of excitement as Opie interspersed flat-out breathtaking (in both senses of the word) sprints with more serene lyrical passages. It was another “Wow!” moment even if an iPad had replaced the theatre of having to move along a 70s-style succession of music stands.
Harvey’s Vers provided the central point of the program. Written as a homage to Messiaen and to celebrate Pierre Boulez’s birthday, it is a short work for solo piano that was played with concentrated intensity by Peter de Jager as he alternated crashing spikes of fractured sound with hazy warmth. Jager’s broad expressive palette also added to Roxburgh’s Flute Music with an Accompaniment as a quiet busy undercurrent of bubbling piano ushered in the softest flute notes. The title of the work is taken from a Browning poem and according to Roxburgh, “refers to the dialogue between a man and a woman who have opposing interpretations of ‘the birdlike flutings’ of a flautist heard through ash trees and bird song”. Rhapsodic moments and vigorous interchange were given a compelling reading by both players.
Maxwell Davies’ work for solo oboe, First Grace of Light was also inspired by a Browning poem. Broad melodic lines punctuated by puffs and staccato exclamations culminated in a sustained high note that emphasised the physicality of oboe playing.
Dazzling dexterity and a command of colour ranging from sheer beauty to grating, piercing angular modernity were features of the technical mastery that underpinned the ability of all three musicians to shape the music into a nuanced, coherent whole.
In his introductory remarks Ben Opie referred to this concert as “a sound bubble” or “sonic world of the period”. It might have made for demanding listening at times but the choice of works and the compelling nature of the playing provided a fascinating insight into the complexities of musical invention between1959 and 2004. Although I did miss that special magic created by a combination of Doecke’s flute and Opie’s oboe, there was ample compensation in this intelligently designed, rich and illuminating experience of new music. I cannot recommend this ensemble highly enough.