Review: Uncomfortable alliance of musicians and music

“Birth of the Fitters,” Concert 17, Canberra International Music Festival

Fitters’ Workshop, May 15.

Reviewed by Judith Crispin

LAST night’s concert “The Birth of the Fitters” presented music from the time the Fitters’ Workshop was built.

Rhapsodic: Bengt Forsbeg, Klara Hellgren and Susanne Magnusson,  photo  Judith Crispin

Rhapsodic: Bengt Forsbeg, Klara Hellgren and Susanne Magnusson, photo Judith Crispin

Unfortunately, perhaps even catastrophically, the concert’s centrepiece, Alban Berg’s “Hier ist Fried”, was cancelled leaving the program rather weak. Works by little-known soldiers were beautifully performed by stellar musicians but it seemed the repertoire, in general, let them down.

The concert had two shining moments – Adam Cook’s sensitive performance of Lili Boulanger’s “Theme and Variations for piano” and Bengt Forsbeg, Klara Hellgren and Susanne Magnusson’s performance of Georges Migot’s “Trio for violin, viola and piano.”

Cook brought rich tone colours and artistic phrasing to Boulanger’s work. His use of pedal to create overlapping harmonic and overtonal fields emphasised the modernist exploration of timbre. Cook maintained consistent lines from the simple melodic opening through to a thunderous climax.

Nicole Canham’s oak toned clarinet and the clear, bell-like piano of Timothy Young were impressive in Arthur Bliss’s “Pastorale” but the work itself tended toward the unremarkable. Salzedo’s “Harp Preludes” were well suited to Alice Giles’s mercurial dexterity and wide timbral palette. Salzedo clearly possessed a comprehensive understanding of the harp (as a harpist himself), but this work seemed more like a lexicon of pleasing harp devices and less like an artwork in its own right.

The highlight of this concert was the appearance on stage of the two glamorously blonde string players, Hellgren and Susanne Magnusson, and the pianist in pale linen. Migot, an accomplished painter, wrote this rhapsodic piano trio for Lilli Boulanger. The ensemble successfully navigated Lutoslawski-like timbral shifts over a sombre harmonic backdrop. Where the piano remained emphatic and sure, moving from chimes to quasi cadenzas, violin and viola produced soaring melodies. So closely matched were the violin and viola that they seemed like extensions of one another rather than separate instruments.

Flautist Kate Clark and harpist Alice Giles demonstrated great technical skill in their performance of Hamilton Harty’s “In Ireland.” A pastiche of Irish folk tunes, Harty’s work suffered from a slight self-consciousness – like an opera singer performing pop tunes. The performance seemed like an uncomfortable alliance of virtuoso musicians and music from the pub. The Boulnois work was also an example of performers more impressive than the music they played. To this pleasant arioso, Nils-Erik Sparf brought magical tone colour and a light bow, Erik Wahlgren’s cello produced a full bodied mezzo and Bengt Forsberg was so virtuosic as to be almost weightless.

The entire second half of this concert consisted of highly impressive musicians struggling to bring mediocre pieces to life. Perhaps the most striking example was the last piece of the evening – Reynaldo Hahn’s “Le ruban dénoué” for two pianos. The very talented Timothy Young and Daniel de Borah gave a flawless performance of this lengthy and frankly lustreless suite of waltzes. Some audience members fell asleep, others shuffled on their chairs or flicked through programs for tomorrow’s concerts. The attempts of these accomplished pianists to command attention in this work was not helped by an acoustic unsuited to two pianos, but the principal obstacle was the piece itself.

One applauds the effort to unearth music by long forgotten soldiers – but one can’t help wonder if some pieces should remain forgotten. The commitment and perseverance of all last night’s wonderful musicians should be highly commended.

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