Monthly Archives: March 2005

Max Stein (tenor) and friends

Perth Synagogue

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Cantorial recitals are few and far between in Perth so it was hardly surprising that Max Stein’s recital drew a big audience. Stein, Sydney-born and currently serving as cantor at Beth Tzedek Synagogue, Calgary – the largest of its kind in western Canada – has trained in both Israel and the USA where, inter alia, he attended master classes at New York’s famed Juilliard School of Music. Heredity is as significant a factor in Stein’s musical development as environment, his grandfather having studied with Cantor Leopold Weinstein in Yugoslvia.

Stein devoted most of his program to established cantorial repertoire; his account of Oseh Shalom was a model of its kind, producing, as he did, a stream of pure and unforced sound with impeccable diction and a near-faultlessly sustained concluding falsetto note. But here – and throughout – one wondered why there was a resort to electronic amplification. Stein’s voice is a remarkable instrument that is capable of generating considerable power which surely would have been more than ample to reach the furthest corners of the venue without artificial boosting.

Stein’s account of Lecha Dodi, that jubilant greeting of the Sabbath Queen, was particularly agreeable, here offered in a number of settings that even including an adaptation to the melody of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma! And there was more novel treatment of standard repertoire in a medley of Broadway hit melodies sung in Hebrew. I imagine there would have been more than a few damp eyes among a capacity audience listening to the soloist in Parrish and Elston’s Mamele, that touching tribute to the archetypal Yiddishe mama.

Not the least of the evening’s pleasures was Stein’s good-humoured linking commentary.

Rosenblatt’s Ve’af Hu was a highlight with Stein and Anthony Gordon (who also presided over the Perth Jewish Male Choir) singing in duo. There was fine ensemble and blend of tone here with Gaby Gunders, at an electronic keyboard, providing commendable rhythmic underpinning.

The recently established PMVJC brought enthusiasm and energy to its task here as well as in its alert responses to Alter’s Retzei. Certainly, the choir’s collective sense of commitment was undeniable. I dare say that under Gordon’s direction, the PMVJC will develop greater precision of intonation which had a tendency to waver, most particularly so in Kol Nidre.

A varied and generous program included contributions by a smartly turned out Carmel School Choir with Stuart Rhine Davis and David Goldfinch alternating as conductor and accompanist.

Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn

It was a study in contrasts: an account of a symphony at a level that critics dream about but seldom encounter in reality – and a concerto performance that buttressed the view that orchestral direction should, in many cases, be left to a conductor, allowing soloists to function purely in that capacity in order to be able to give undivided attention to the solo line.

If, due to some magical form of time travel that would have enabled Mozart to be present at this performance of his ‘Paris’ Symphony, I would have been surprised had the ACO’s account failed to win the Salzburg Master’s approval.

Here was a performance to savour with its meticulous attention to fine detail, tempi that seemed entirely appropriate, unfailingly musical phrasing and corporate tone that, with the use of period – or period-copy – instruments, would have made the composer feel entirely and comfortably at home. Certainly, for concertgoers not accustomed to the sound of a period wind choir and valveless horns of the time, this might well have been revelatory.

This was an excceptional account; I hung on every note. If ever a justification for the existence of an ensemble such as the ACO was needed, then it lay in the keeping of this splendid offering.

There were no microphones in evidence at this concert so this extraordinarily fine reading is lost to posterity. Has thought been given to the ACO embarking on a complete recording of Mozart’s symphonies? If this account of the ‘Paris’ is anything to go by, it’s an idea that ought to be seriously entertained.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor made for less satisfying listening, the chief reservation stemming from direction of the accompanying orchestra that was not always as felicitous as it might ideally have been.

The solo violin line is cruelly demanding; it calls for unremitting focus on the job in hand. And whether the soloist, who has a great deal to think about and do in this concerto, is the ideal person to take on the added burden of directing an orchestra playing a tricky score, is debatable. Occasionally – inevitably, perhaps, with such an arrangement – the orchestra had to be left to its own devices – and at other moments, the assistant concertmaster helped out by waving her bow, in lieu of a baton, at the musicians.

Had the soloist, however, been able to focus purely on the solo line while another was able to give undivided attention to anticipating the requirements of the soloist, the result might well have been that much more satisfying overall.

Also on the program was Beethoven’s Symphony No 7.

Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn

A surpassingly fine account of a baroque oboe concerto was the chief joy of the first half of a concert which climaxed with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. That series of four concertos for violin has been the asthmatic, red-haired composer-priest’s biggest drawcard since being rescued from oblivion some sixty years ago. These concertos have never fallen out of favour since so, predictably, Vivaldi’s all-time big hit drew an audience of some 1200 aficionados who filled the stalls and lower gallery of the Concert Hall to capacity.

The only non-Vivaldi work on offer was Evaristo Dall’Abaco’s Concerto in C for oboe and strings, music I’d imagine might have been new to most. Here, Kirsten Barry scaled the heights, her skill on the baroque oboe, that much mellower, less piercing-toned ancestor of the modern oboe, is phenomenal, producing a near-faultlessly fashioned stream of sound that seduced the ear whether in the charmingly buoyant gigue which opens the concerto or the ultra-civilised minuet movement that brings the work to a close. The stately elegance of the finale was perfectly captured.

Throughout, Barry had the inestimable advantage of an accompaniment by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra which, on present form, makes it the nation’s most accomplished baroque ensemble.

In The Four Seasons, soloist Lucinda Moon and the ABO pooled their formidable musical skills to glorious effect. Although Ms Moon must long since have lost count of the number of times she has played this quartet of concertos, there wasn’t a hint here of concentration wearing thin. This was no routine, run-of-the-mill reading. Instead, page after page of what must surely be the most enduringly popular of all baroque concertos for the violin, came across as if freshly minted but always within the line and contour of the 18th century. Superbly synchronised, soloist and orchestra were throughout pitted against each other in insightful ways.

Many factors, of course, contribute to performance, not least technical finesse and stylistic integrity, both of which were present in abundance. Over and above these crucial factors, though, was a youthful exuberance, a shared enthusiasm that elevated whatever the ABO touched to impressive levels of achievement.

A rewarding evening also included a Vivaldi concerto for two baroque horns with Darryl Poulsen and James McCrow as soloists. Without either keys or valves, these treacherous precursors of the modern horn are almost impossible to control completely. They pose nightmarish difficulties for players. But notwithstanding a sprinkling of crumpled notes, the soloists rose admirably to the challenge, playing with flair and style to emerge at concerto’s end with honour pretty much intact – no small achievement.

Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn

Dejan Lazic (piano)

Art Gallery of W.A.

reviewed by Neville Cohn

If there had been disappointment at pianist Dejan Lazic’s first appearance in Perth (in ensemble with the Kuss Quartet) due to less than flattering acoustics, he scaled Olympus at his solo recital days later, a many-splendoured affair that crowned a fortnight of performances in PIAF’s Wigmore Chamber Music series.

An all-Beethoven first half offered Variations on God Save the King of which Lazic made much with kaleidoscopic tonal colourings and a lift to the phrase that would surely have coaxed even the most taciturn bird from a twig.

This curtainraising delight gave way to Beethoven on a considerably loftier plain. Here, Lazic proved himself a poet of the piano, exploring, with the instincts of a born musician, the subtleties that make opus 110 the towering achievement that it is. I cannot readily recall so satisfying a reading.

Whether floating dandelion-delicate figurations into the auditorium, producing exquisite pianissimo shadings or giving point and meaning to some of the most elusive fugal writing in the repertoire, Lazic was master of the moment. True, there was some blurring in the opening moments of the second movement but, in relation to the performance as a whole, this reduces to the status of a quibble.

Liszt’s piano music occupies a very different world to that of Beethoven but Lazic was no less at home in it, not least in Canzone where extended, near-perfectly spun trills were only one of a myriad features that made magic of the music. Gondoleria, with its extravagant flourishes, can so easily descend into schmaltz so it is much to his credit that Lazic ignored the temptation to succumb to vulgarity, instead giving an account that was in the best sense bravura but invariably within the bounds of good taste.

The Tarantella, given astoundingly virtuosic treatment, provided incontrovertible evidence that for sheer digital nimbleness and accuracy at top speed, Lazic is better than most and second to few. And the lightness of touch that informed much of the playing here was a fine foil for the very much grittier works of Bartok.

In Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from Mikrokosmos, Lazic proved himself a worthy interpreter, seeming positively to relish the challenge of tricky metrical gear changes that have defeated many a lesser pianist. And Bartok’s Three Rondos, with their jarring dissonances leavened by moments of gentle insight made for bracing listening, too.

As encores, Lazic played two Chopin waltzes. The so-called Minute Waltz could hardly be faulted, with rapid passagework like strings of perfectly matched pearls. But in the no-less-celebrated Waltz in E minor, opus posthumous this young pianist showed signs of tiredness; this was as a good a point as any to bring the curtain down on the recital as well on as on PIAF’s Wigmore Chamber Music series.

Before the recital and during the interval, concertgoers were able to view three paintings by Edvard Munch, typically redolent of the Norwegian painters sombre view of life, as well as what seemed a yellow floor stain but which turned out to be Wolfgang Laib’s Pollen from Hazelnut.

Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn

Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Mahler)

Wigmore Chamber Music Series (PIAF)

Winthrop Hall


reviewed by Neville Cohn


In the minds of many concertgoers, Mahler is inextricably associated with the writing of lengthy symphonies often calling for gigantic forces. But he was no less effective, size-wise, at the opposite end of the spectrum. His beautifully fashioned settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn are some of the most enchanting gems of the lieder repertoire.

Twelve of these mini-masterpieces were on offer at Winthrop Hall with Paul Kildea presiding over a chamber orchestra (playing James Olsen’s new arrangement of Mahler’s piano originals). The vocal soloists were New Zealand bass Paul Whelan and British mezzo soprano Pamela Helen Stephen in a sometimes uneven presentation.

Whelan, as concertgoers discovered on hearing him as Jesus in Bach’s St Matthew Passion earlier in the Festival, has a colossal voice – but whereas this powerful instrument was appropriately reined in to blissful effect the other evening in Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, in the first of the Mahler lieder – Reveille – his voice, perhaps due to a misjudgement of Winthrop Hall’s acoustics, tended to over-loudness although the accompaniment brought out the best in most of the 12-strong instrumental ensemble.

But if Whelan’s opening lied lacked some finesse, his skilled and imaginative use of a remarkably supple voice did wonders for St Anthony Preaching to the Fishes. Here, Whelan, a dab hand at vocal acting, struck interpretative gold recounting the tale of the saint leaving an empty church for the water’s edge to sermonise to a swarming congregation of sea creatures who listen intently to his words before fish, crabs, and turtles return to their flawed existences.

It was Mahler, I think, who said that in music it is easy to be interesting but difficult to be beautiful. Here, he succeeds in being both, the sinuousness of the accompanying instrumental lines triggering mind’s-eye images of fish darting through the water. In The Drummer Boy, Whelan was beyond conventional criticism in conveying the terror and despair of one of Mahler’s darkest visions.

A thousand flowers, as the Chinese say, to arranger Olsen whose orchestration of the piano accompaniments was altogether satisfying, not least for its graceful obeisance to Mahler’s own idiosyncratic handling of instruments.

It is perhaps invidious to single out individuals in what was very much a group effort but it would be ungracious not to specially point to Allan Meyer’s consistently fine, immaculately pitched clarinet line, Malcolm Stewart’s enchanting way with the French horn and Michael Black’s discreet but telling artistry at the harmonium, its instantly recognisable, wheezing tone adding an extra frisson to the listening experience.

Although there was much to admire in mezzo soprano Pamela Stephen’s line, not least her meticulous attention to clear enunciation of the words, there seemed at times a focus more on technical finesse than revealing the interior mood of whatever she happened to be singing.

One listened largely in vain, for instance, for the wheedling archness that is the essence of Verlorne Muh – and there was some loss of vocal power in the lower reaches of the range in The Sentinel’s Nightsong. But in Das irdische Leben, the anguish of a mother watching her child succumb to starvation was impressively suggested.

Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn