Monthly Archives: February 2004

Songs of Love and Death (Olivier Messiaen)

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (soprano)
Cedric Tiberghien (piano)

                                                                Winthrop Hall


reviewed by Neville Cohn


Messiaen’s Songs of Love and Death is ideal festival fare. It is a towering masterpiece. But it is hardly ever heard ‘live’ outside the world’s more important music centres. At any one time, there would not be more than the merest handful of musicians able to cope meaningfully with its immense physical and interpretative demands. So there was a very real sense of occasion at this performance of the song cycle by Gweneth-Ann Jeffers and Cedric Tiberghien at Winthrop Hall. And those hardy souls who braved one of the hottest, steamiest days of the year to attend this lunch-time even were well rewarded. By even the most most stringent of critical criteria, Jeffers and Tiberghien gave us a recital to remember – and for all the right reasons.

This was Tiberghien’s first festival appearance – and he came through with flying colours. His command of the piano is phenomenal, his ability to adapt to even the subtlest aspects of Jeffers’ vocal line a source of wonder.
Becomingly gowned in pale turquoise, Jeffers, whose versatility is astonishing and who, in technical wizardry, could fairly be described as the vocal equivalent of a Vladimir Horowitz, steered a near-immaculate way, without any visible or audible strain, through one of the most ferociously difficult musical obstacle courses ever devised.

But if Messiaen’s epic is tough on musicians, it is no less so, in a different way, of course, on listeners. Songs of Love and Death is not easily absorbed, not the sort of work to relax to after a tough day at the office. Just as a crowd-scene painted by, say, Breughel, needs focussed attention to absorb its swarming detail with all the satisfaction that that entails, so, too, does Songs of Love and Death in its very different way, music profoundly influenced by the mediaeval legend of Tristan and Isolde, most widely known in Wagner’s operatic treatment of the story. But compared with the demands made on the listener by Messiaen’s work, Wagner’s opera, relatively speaking, is a walk-over because if, in Songs of Love and Death, focus is allowed to weaken (on the part of the listener), if attention is allowed to wander, the thread to can easily be lost and difficult to retrieve and the result can be bewildering rather than enlightening. But how rewarding this can be if the eye is kept on the ball, so to speak. This was an immensely satisfying performance.

Songs of Love and Death, written in 1945, has many of Messiaen’s musical fingerprints, such as fantastically clever notation of bird song which Tiberghien delineated faultlessly as his hands moved up and down the keyboard as nonchalantly as if dusting the furniture And with what confidence and brilliance of tone he played Messiaen’s trade-mark coruscations of notes, including note-clusters that so wonderfully suggest the glitter of stars, bursts of light or various states of ecstacy. And in Doundo tchil, the fourth of this cycle of twelve songs, the piano accompaniment sounds uncannily like the music of Debussy – and Tiberghien played it with all the authority and fluency one associates with Gieseking in his prime.

Jeffers was no less impressive in Montagnes, producing a stream of finely fashioned, velvet-smooth sound from the lower register of the vocal range. The text, incidentally, while mainly in French, also has lines in Quecha, an ancient South American language. Here, and throughout, Jeffer’s ability to focus on swarming, felicitous detail without losing sight of the cycle as an over-arching entity was hugely impressive. The same could certainly be said of Tiberghien who strikes me as the most superbly equipped of pianists interpreting Messiaen I have ever encountered since last hearing Thomas Rajna’s account of Vingt Regards, that other colossal Messiaen opus.

© 2004

BATAVIA (Richard Mills)

W.A.Opera Company and Chorus (in association with Opera Australia)

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth


reviewed by Neville Cohn


Visually spectacular, bristling with violence, seething with sexual undercurrents of the ugliest sort, Batavia, on these counts, is a largely successful essay in verismo opera. The purists, of course, may object to a story line that does not follow the historical record precisely. But, in the operatic canon, there are innumerable precedents for this bending of the truth in the interests of dramatic impact.

Certainly, the production, from these points of view, is offered in such engrossing terms that it might well prompt those coming new to this story to seek out more about one of the most horrific maritime occurrences of the mid-17th century.

And for those who, such as myself, grew up in South Africa, the Batavia tale would have resonated strongly; all schoolchildren there would routinely and rigorously be taught how intrepid Dutch mariners led by Jan van Riebeeck, established a fruit and vegetable garden (in what would eventually become Cape Town) as a stop-off point for taking on water and fresh food by Dutch vessels rounding the Cape of Good Hope on their way to the Indies to collect cargos of spices. Certainly, the VOC emblem, initials for the Dutch East India Company which financed these voyages of discovery and commerce, was everywhere apparent onstage.

The story line of Batavia is, very briefly, this: on its way to the Indies, Batavia is shipwrecked off the west coast of Australia. Most on board survive. The authority of the ship’s captain, disabled by illness, is usurped by a clique who resort to sexual violence and murder while a small group of survivors sets out in a tiny boat to seek help which eventually arrives – but too late to save the lives of murdered innocents. The ringleaders are tried and there is terrible judicial retribution.

It’s a story of horror that cries out for operatic treatment. And for much of the time – and notwithstanding a libretto that at times sounds curiously stilted – there’s little to tone down this violent tale of shipwreck, death, survival and revenge. There is, in fact, such emphasis on horror that the presentation at times appears more an essay in grand guignol than grand opera. This was so much the case that one turned, as if to a refuge, to brief episodes of tenderness, most of these to the strains of a small baroque ensemble – moments that registered all the more strongly for their brevity. These were in stark contrast to scenes involving the deliberate drowning of a crew member and the cold blooded murder of two children, not to mention wanton rape of defenceless women.

How gratifying it must have been for the musicians of the W.A.Symphony Orchestra to play, for once, in the expanded pit of His Majesty’s instead of, as has more usually been the case, having to squeeze into its cramped confines like sardines in a can. This would surely have been a factor that positively influenced the way it performed. The brass section, in particular, was much on its mettle, not only in the pit but, from time to time, taking up positions at opposite ends of the dress circle which brought a neat stereophonic quality to the proceedings.

Richard Mills has produced a technically skilled score, unsurprisingly, because over time he has developed a fine understanding of instrumentation. There is little in the form of set-piece arias here, little in melodic terms, little that could be described as catchy. And for all the care with which it was listened to, I cannot say – this on the basis of a single hearing – that any of the opera’s musical ideas imprinted themselves so strongly on the consciousness that they lingered on to any significant degree after the conclusion of the work. This reinforces a view that it was the visual dimension of the work with its fine re-creation of 17th-century Dutch clothing, Rory Dempster’s excellent lighting design as well as the directorial skill, everywhere apparent, of Lindy Hume, not least for her imaginative and effective deployment of her forces, that left the most enduring impression. Certainly, the visual element was so overwhelming that, for a good deal of the imte, it overwhelmed the music and monopolised the attention. But, for those for whom lavish spectacle is important, Batavia will not disappoint, not least for an epic shipwreck scene as the ship disintegrates in heavy seas off the Abrolhos Islands. For sheer spectacle, this was an episode of which even Cecil B. de Mille would have been proud.

No less successful is Dan Potra’s inspired design of the ship’s interior that brings a striking sense of time, place and atmosphere to the proceedings.

I dare say the work will eventually be placed on compact disc – and this, divorced from visual distraction, would allow the music to be listened to the exclusion of all else; it would be the acid test from an aural perspective.

In purely vocal terms, soprano Emma Matthews was perfectly cast, clearly fulfilling the rich promise of early years. She takes top honours, entirely convincing as Zwaantie Hendricx. Persuasive in technical terms – her rapid, high register arabesques were an object lesson in how to do this sort of thing impressively – she could hardly be faulted. And she was no less convincing in acting terms as a wanton, lascivious woman getting her kicks from schadenfreude at its worst. Another excellent contribution in both vocal and histrionic terms, was Anke Hoppner as Lucretia; the probity of the latter character was finely evoked in both vocal and theatrical terms. As the evil Jeronimus, Michael Lewis’ portrayal of a feral, amoral man creating horrific havoc was spot on. So, too, was Jamie Allen as the violent and murderous Conraat van Huyssen, Jeronimus’ dastardly co-mutineer. Quite unintentionally, I am sure, Allen and Lewis, in stage make up and costume, looked so strikingly alike that at times it required close attention to determine who was playing whom. As ship’s captain, Bruce Martin brings customary seriousness of purpose to his role. As the predikant (minister), Timothy DuFore gives a richly rounded performance as a man in turn anguished and opportunistic, whose moral standards are questionable. Elizabeth Campbell, reliable as always, does well in the role of the predikant’s wife. And Barry Ryan as Wiebbe Hayes, cuts a rather stiff figure but sang commendably.

In the rapidity with which civilised norms corrode, how the veneer of so-called civilisation can crumble to be replaced by barbarism, the Batavia tale has striking parallels with Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s novel about the descent into savagery by a group of school boys marooned on an island.

© 2004 Neville Cohn


oitpW.A. Opera Company and Chorus
W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Brian Castles-Onion (conductor)
Supreme Court Gardens


reviewed by Neville Cohn


In years of attending Opera-in-the-Park performances, I cannot readily recall weather conditions as ideal as at the weekend when thousands attended this annual gift to the people of Perth. Balmy with the merest hint of a breeze and barely an intrusive sound from traffic along Riverside Driver – and a program compilation a cut above the usual fare offered at these events – made for an unusually satisfying evening.

Instead of the usual bits-and-pieces program – a higgledy-piggledy collection of operatic odds and ends: an aria here, a duet there, an orchestral interlude or two with little or no unifying theme – there was a real effort to provide a program that made musical and programming sense.

There were, for instance, brackets of selections from Gounod’s Faust and from Bellini’s Norma (including the exquisite Casta Diva), both works to be offered in full in the Opera Company’s 2004 season. As well, we heard The Lord’s Prayer from Richard Mills’ Batavia which is shortly to be mounted at His Majesty’s Theatre as part of the Perth Festival. Also on an attractive bill were extracts from Mozart’s Magic Flute (with baritone Andrew Foote splendid, as always, in Papageno’s famous aria Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja. And for once there was almost no noise intrusion from traffic along Riverside Drive.

Brian Castles-Onion is not your run-of-the-mill conductor. Certainly, at the weekend, his linking commentary, the likes of which I have never before encountered in decades of concertgoing, included revelations about his liver cleansing efforts (followed by “I can’t believe I said that”) which suggest that if, at any point, Castles-Onion decides to hang up his baton, he could to advantage have a go at being a stand-up comedian.

His patter, zany and often anarchic, was at times less tongue-in-cheek than foot-in-mouth as he fired vollies of often astounding commentary (reflecting, inter alia, on the corpulence of tenors) that would surely have had some of the political-correctness brigade foaming at the mouth.

Of necessity, electronic amplification had to be used so that listeners – and there was a turn-out of thousands – sitting well back from the stage could listen without straining. At times these arrangements were not entirely satisfactory; at climaxes, notably from the brass section, sound tended to distort.

It was good night for tenor Aldo di Toro who sounded entirely convincing. His diction is impeccable and, almost invariably, he succeeded in adapting, chameleon-like, to the changing moods of whatever he happened to be singing. And soprano Elisa Wilson was a glamorous, gold-gowned presence in a variety of arias – and in Casta Diva, that most touchingly poignant of all Bellini arias, quick thinking got it back on the rails after a brief weakening of concentration – as well as a deeply felt account of the national anthem that brought one of the Opera Company’s best-yet outdoor events to an impressive close.

May I say yet again that having, over years, attended many outdoor presentations of this nature in a number of cities around the world, I have yet to come across audiences as courteous, tidy and orderly as those that gather for these opera presentations. Certainly, police officers and State Emergency Service volunteers had nothing to do other than provide discreet evidence of their presence.

© 2004 Neville Cohn

Gavin Bryars Composer-in-residence (PIAF)

Composer-in-residence (PIAF)

St George’s Cathedral

Reviewed by Neville Cohn



Gavin Bryars is a burly, black-clad figure with a shaven cranium who might be mistaken for a night club bouncer but is a cove of a very different stripe. The music that pours from his pen is the antithesis of his physical appearance. Most of that offered at St George’s Cathedral at two well-attended concerts is couched in often hushed terms, music of mainly gentle, very gradually evolving ideas which, on paper – and this goes to the crux of his output – might seem a sure recipe for tedium but instead, in a way difficult to define, engages the attention totally.
Most of his output experienced at these two cathedral concerts sounds entirely in accord with Bryars’ fascination with the nature of ‘musical slowness’ and what he calls ‘innovative simplicity’.

Gavin Bryars 1-PAGE ONE

Bryars, too, has an ability to see creative potential in what others might dismiss as expendable rubbish, as exemplified in his inspired musical treatment of a strip of recording tape containing a single line from Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me sung in a thin, quavering voice by an elderly hobo, now dead. Bryars wrote the simplest of orchestral accompaniments to the vocal tape played over and over again. But what might, on the face of it, seem a sure recipe for tedium is, in fact, an utterly engrossing listening experience which, in its poignancy, places it in a special category of excellence.

At this Tura New Music event, we also heard Daniel Kossov as soloist in Bryars’ Violin Concerto with Roger Smalley a meticulously prepared conductor. Kossov’s exquisitely hushed, finely drawn violin line, to an often muted accompaniment, called water-colour images of mist-enshrouded landscapes to mind, an essay in tranquillity.

Percussion ensemble Tetrafide gave us an account of One Last Bar Then Joe Can Sing, yet another of Bryars’ fascinating experiments in musical gentleness. I felt strongly drawn to this, as the five percussionists created hushed auras of sound by bowing crotales and vibraphones which combined with marimba murmurings and delicate use of windchimes to produce some of the most soothing music imaginable.

I found Bryars’ Viennese Dance No 1 bewildering as was Bryars program note that Mata Hari (Dutch, her real name was Gertrud Zelle) was one of the three most celebrated dancers in the world. Really? I could not, in all frankness, discern anything about this work that could persuade me that it unequivocally suggested either Vienna or the dance.

But Bryars’ String Quartet No 3 was very much more satisfying musical fare. Deeply felt, often throbbing with ardour, its most passionate moments called Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht to mind and held the attention throughout despite the irritating intrusion of traffic roaring along St George’s Terrace. This was yet another excellent contribution by the Cremona Quartet which has been one of the glories of PIAF 2004.

© 2004

Symphony under the Spanish Stars

W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Pioneer Women’s Memorial, Kings Park


reviewed by Neville Cohnslava


If, at a performance given by the W.A.Symphony Orchestra at Perth’s acoustically perfect Concert Hall, a number of concertgoers brought picnic hampers with them from which they extracted platters of rice salad, cheese and tomato sandwiches, a bottle of champagne loudly popped and slices of rock melon which they proceeded to variously devour and drink, it would cause an outcry and a request to leave the venue immediately.

But if the same scenario plays out on the beautifully grassed, gently sloping grounds around the Pioneer Women’s Memorial in Kings Park while listening to the WASO, no one would raise an eyebrow. And that was very much the case when an audience of some three thousand had their picnic dinners as twilight fell over this idyllic setting and the local ducks waddled importantly around the grounds in the hope of a free feed. The weather (which can make or break an evening of this sort) was near-perfect.


As an hour-long prelude to the program proper, we heard Guapo, an instrumental ensemble that focusses primarily on the music of Piazzolla, more of which would be heard later in the evening. It was a thoroughly professional presentation.

Music amplified by electronic means seldom sounds entirely satisfactory, certainly not as it would reach the listener in, say, the Concert Hall with its wondrously fine acoustics. And having a near-constant, if relatively muted, input from an open-air concert being given at the WACA ground by Fleetwood Mac was not a welcome contribution to the proceedings. But, these reservations notwithstanding, there was more than sufficient evidence that the WASO is getting back to the form that made so many concerts memorable in 2003.

Extracts from Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo did not fare well, though, largely due, for much of the time, to conductor Benjamin Northey’s relentlessly rigid rhythms which lent a mechanical quality to the performance. Later, there was rather more rhythmic give and take in a rare airing of Gershwin’s Cuban Overture.

A brief weakening of concentration and an occasional slip of the finger aside, guitarist Slava Grigoryan did well in Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, although in the opening pages of the concerto, guitar sound was overly amplified. But it was in an arrangement for guitar of Albeniz’s piano piece Sevilla that Grigoryan came fully into his own in playing that was stylish and, in its more virtuosic episodes, nimble, controlled and accurate. And I liked the expressiveness and beauty of tone with which he essayed the slower passages of the piece.

Cathie Travers, whose musical versatility is a byword, contributed to the concert not only as accordionist but also as arranger. I very much liked her re-working of Piazzolla’s Milonga del Angel which, to a notable extent, conveyed that haunting, bittersweet quality that lies at the core of so much of Piazzolla’s music. Most of the Argentinian tango-meister’s music was conceived for small groups of musicians; it’s seldom heard in arrangements for symphony-size orchestras. Certainly, it was a new – and engaging – listening experience for me.

There was more Piazzolla but in more intimate mode in Romance del Diablo with Travers playing a veteran Titano accordion in ensemble with Grigoryan, Graeme Gilling (keyboard), Daniel Kossov (violin) and Boguslaw Szczepaniak (double bass). Here, too, the essence of Piazzolla’s tango-based ideas were captured like a moth in the gentlest of hands.

Both these arrangements deserve to be heard under better acoustic circumstances.

In passing: there were roars of good-natured laughter (doubtless due to Western Power’s lamentable handling of the power crisis a short while ago) when an offical from that utility drew the winning ticket from a barrel to give a lucky concertgoer $500’s worth of electricity.


Copyright 2004