Composer & Citizen: Chamber LandscapesLeft – Bethany Hill

For some years now the Adelaide Festival has mounted a weekend of chamber music at the beautiful Ukaria Cultural Centre in the Adelaide Hills. Arguably the finest venue for chamber music in Australia, it is a temple for the genre, intimate yet profound, that is classical chamber music. This year the weekend consisted of nine concerts, and was curated by the brilliant harpist, Marshall Maguire, who introduced each concert with brief but insightful signposts for the music we were about to hear.

I attended five of these concerts, each just over an hour long. They included several performances which were simply as good as it gets.

First I heard the New York 8-voice ensemble, Roomful of Teeth. With roots in close harmony, informed by Jacques Loussier and Soul, but using just about every vocal technique known to man, this ensemble can reasonably claim to be unique. Consequently, most of the repertoire they sing was written expressly for them, some of it even by their own members. Their program included three particularly interesting pieces, each in a markedly different form.

First came The Ascendant, five songs by Wally Gunn, to texts by Maria Zajkowski. These poems were characterised by Gunn as involving “devastating feelings of release, which can make your stomach drop as if in free fall”. I found them very moving, but Gunn’s treatment of them perplexing. They all began, either with an a cappella rendering of the vocal texture to be developed followed by Sami Butler on drum kit starting an ostinato pattern, or the other way round. The vocal textures were always intriguing, sometimes staggering, but I found that the ostinatos, because of their repetitive sameness, actually acted to prevent any event resembling the sudden free fall that the composer talked about.

They also sang two movements from Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 voices. The movement Passacaglia contained a tour de force moment, when out of very low, guttural speaking all 8 singers burst out with a D major chord, a seeming impossibility – where did they get their note from? Impressive formally, as well as again exhibiting a wide range of vocal and boccal techniques, was Toby Twining’s Dumas’ Riposte. This piece intertwined words of Dumas with a poem by zsuzsanna ardó, which itself contained a refrain, and each of these three strands was distinguished by its own vocal style. And I can’t leave the concert by Roomful of Teeth without mentioning baritone Dashon Burton’s amazing solo in Brad Wells’ textless piece, Otherwise. (Brad is the artistic director of the group.) In this piece the rest of the group generated remarkable high harmonics, which provided a prismatic, almost three-dimensional backdrop to the beautiful bel canto of the baritone solo.

The English string quartet named for its first violin, Oliver Heath, played three concerts in Chamber Landscapes, each concert pairing a string quartet by Michael Tippett with one by Beethoven, whose music exerted such a profound influence on Tippett. The Heath Quartet is a very engaging group, exuding serene confidence, and it is a pleasure to watch them interacting with each other in various ways as the music proceeds.

I heard two of these concerts. The first paired Tippett’s second quartet with Beethoven’s first, op 18 no 3 in D, They are both early works, in which the composer is to an extent experimenting with the compositional techniques at his disposal. In Beethoven’s case, these are the repertoire of clichés which form the basis of so much late 18th century music. In Tippett’s case, they are tropes found in Beethoven’s late quartets, rather than the early ones; especially the C# minor (the slow fugue movement) and the A minor (the shifting textures of the first movement). In the pairings the Heath Quartet always played the Tippett quartet first, then the Beethoven. When they began Tippett’s 2nd quartet, they played with such velvety smoothness that I was reminded of the tone colour of the quartet which introduced me to so much of the repertoire, the Amadeus Quartet. This tone quality, unusual in today’s string ensembles, continued in the slow fugue, and pervaded the mercurial textures of Beethoven’s quartet too.

Their second concert began with Tippett’s third quartet. This begins with a slow introduction which starts with two phrases, the first beginning with a dominant 7th chord, the second with a diminished 7th chord. The Beethoven quartet that followed was the third of the Razumovsky quartets, op 59 no. 3, which begins exactly with those 2 chords, in reverse order, also in a slow introduction. In both quartets these opening 2 chords generate much of the argument throughout all the movements that follow. In the Tippett they resolve as a chord of two fourths, which control the texture in a very Bartokian way. In Beethoven’s case, they constantly ask the question, how will they resolve?

The first movement of Tippett’s third quartet is based on a fugue with I think the longest subject I’ve ever come across. It starts innocently enough, but when, eventually, all four instruments have joined in it proceeds with a similar frenzy to the fast sections of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (which I had heard three times the night before). And the last movement is strikingly reminiscent of Beethoven’s very last quartet, op 135 in F – a slow, very reflective passage asking “must it be?” followed by an insouciant fast section saying cheerfully “it must be”.

The Heath Quartet played both works in a very different way from the previous concert. Gone was Amadeus-like silkiness, to be replaced by a muscular approach full of the colour of upper harmonics, brilliantly enhanced by the acoustics of Ukaria’s wonderful hall. Even the slow movement, so understated in its meandering 6/8 rhythm, started with a shock – practically a slap pizzicato from Christopher Murray on the cello – and the outer movements had you on the edge of your chair, heart palpitating, thinking “Whatever is going to happen next?” Their performance of the Razumovsky quartet was quite simply the best I’ve ever heard.

The remaining two concerts I attended this weekend showed off two young Australian sopranos, both fresh, bright, and paying great attention to the texts of their songs. Siobhan Stagg’s recital of French songs by Debussy, Poulenc, and Messiaen was the only singing in French by anyone I have ever heard in which I could understand every word. Siobhan is a consummate artist. She now sings with Berlin Opera, and is being lionised all over Europe, and with reason. Unsophisticated and charming in demeanour, she enters the emotional landscape of each song she sings without reserve, and her clear, true voice, capable of great dynamic variation, goes straight to the heart. Her languor in C’est l’extase! Her fun in Chevaux de bois! In the vividly contrasting emotions of Poulenc’s cycle Fiançailles pour rire, every change was mercurial yet effortless. Then, with pianist Timothy Young in full flight, she scaled the heights of Messiaen’s cycle, Poèmes pour Mi. They hardly even sounded difficult.

The Baroque concert called The Female Voice was as unusual a program as that given by Roomful of Teeth. The concert’s title referred not only to soprano Bethany Hill, but to the fact that the entire program was written by women composers. Bethany was supported by Ludovico’s Band, a group of seven Baroque players including Marshall Maguire, and two theorbos.

The concert was bookended by songs by Hildegard von Bingen, the twelfth century nun who famously described her hymns as “feathers on the breath of God”. These were somewhat surprisingly played, not sung, by Ben Opie, trying to sound like a baroque oboe but actually playing a modern one, to the accompaniment of a tiny harmonium. The effect was more reminiscent of a bagpipe than a convent.

The remaining three composers wrote in 17th century Italy. Bethany Hill sang three songs by Francesca Caccini, the daughter of the more famous Giulio. She sang charmingly, and ornamented gracefully, but the pieces are perhaps a little on the bland side. These were no preparation for her performances of the three wonderful songs by Barbara Strozzi that followed.

If Pensaci bene already reveals the hand of a master, Strozzi’s monody Udite, amanti is on a par with Monteverdi’s greatest laments, and higher praise is not possible. Bethany Hill penetrated the passionate succession of emotions in this ever-changing tableau with infectious enthusiasm. This was followed by a humorous piece playing constantly with the syllables of sol-fa, at least as cleverly as Lassus, and with double entendre reminiscent of of Audi Coelum  from Monteverdi’s Vespers.

The concert included two sonatas by another nun, Isabella Leonarda. The first, Sonata no 5, for two violins and the splendidly rich continuo section of Ludovico’s Band, was unremarkable, but the sonata no 12, for one violin and continuo, gave rise to some of the very best baroque violin playing I have ever heard. Lucinda Moon not only paid loving attention to every moment in every note, and drew vast resources of tonal variety from her instrument, but was able to hold the audience in almost unbreathing attention through the many contrasting sections of Leonarda’s sonata, which of course was unfamiliar even to the most ardent baroque music lover. We knew we were enjoying the inestimable privilege of listening to a true master, but during the listening itself we were simply a part of the music.

For, to complete itself, performance always needs audience. And the audience for this series of chamber music concerts was all that a performer could wish for – relaxed, engaged, and musically literate. I declare that the weekend at Ukaria in the Adelaide Festival is a unique jewel in the musical calendar of Australia, where venue, audience, and performers, embraced by the curators of the weekend, combine to produce an experience as close to ideal as can be imagined.

2020 Adelaide Festival
Composer & Citizen: Chamber Landscapes

Venue: UKARIA Cultural Centre, Mount Barker SA
Dates: 6 – 9 March 2020



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