Tag Archives: Haydn

Geoffrey Lancaster (fortepiano)

Sonatas Nos 32 in G minor, 31 in A flat and 33 in C minor

TPT: 66’22”

Tall Poppies TPT: 66’22”

reviewed by Neville Cohn


To listen to Geoffrey Lancaster playing Haydn on the fortepiano is to be drawn ineluctably into the sound and mood world of the composer. And that was very much the case at a series of recitals that Lancaster gave in Perth recently.


 Before listening to the first of a projected series of compact disc recordings devoted to Haydn’s complete keyboard sonatas, I wondered to what extent that sense of spontaneity that made his live recitals so extraordinarily satisfying would be captured on disc. Would the freshness and vitality transfer successfully to recordings?


Any concerns I might have had on this point evaporated within moments. There is a wonderful sense of spontaneity here – and it is abundantly in evidence. Indeed, the playing on this CD is so ‘alive’ that listening to it provides that additional frisson one associates primarily with  experiencing a profound musical interpretation in the flesh, as it were.


Over the years, I have lost count of the times I’ve heard Lancaster in recital. Hopefully, this recording and those to follow will allow listeners living far from the main routes of the international concert circuit to experience the magic of Lancaster’s interpretative insights.


Just as in his recent recitals in Perth, each of the sonatas here is prefaced by a short prelude which, Lancaster explained to the audience, was the common practice in recital in Haydn’s day.


Lancaster provides his own prelude to the Sonata No 32 in G minor but the other two sonatas – Sonata No 31 and Sonata No33 – are prefaced by preludes composed by Muzio Clementi.


As a whole, this recording is pure delight. Make a point of adding it to your CD collection; it will enrich your music life.



Geoffrey Lancaster (fortepiano)



Eileen Joyce Studio, UWA

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Some time ago, during a TV interview, famed mezzo Cecilia Bartoli was asked whether she thought she had been touched by the finger of God. Modestly, she said she doubted it  –  but, tongue in cheek – she conceded that the Lord might possibly have waved ‘hullo’ from a distance.


After listening to Geoffrey Lancaster’s artistry in this series of Haydn  recitals, I’d like to think that God Almighty would not only have waved to him but invited him in for afternoon tea.


Perhaps once in a generation, sometimes even less frequently, there’s an opportunity to hear Haydn’s complete keyboard sonatas. Perth concertgoers were offered this rare opportunity in July.


Geoffrey Lancaster is one of the very few fortepianists anywhere in the world to have taken on this immense challenge. And in these recitals, it was at once apparent that he has in abundance those crucial attributes essential to embark on so vast a musical enterprise: fearless, superbly educated fingers, an intellect of highest order, rare expressive insights – and the staying power of a primed athlete.


Not the least of the many delights of the sonatas (more than fifty) was Lancaster’s linking commentary deriving from a lifetime’s consideration of these wonderful but often neglected  keyboard gems. Lancaster’s knowledge of the circumstances surrounding each of these gems is encyclopaedic.


As well, in the style of Haydn’s day, the performance of each sonata was prefaced by a brief prelude by the performer: an extemporaneous flourish here, a little series of rapid arabesques there, some scales up and down the keyboard – and then the magic of Haydn interpreted by a keyboard master at the height of his powers.


Rapid passagework that called strings of perfectly matched pearls to mind – and the extraordinary richness of Lancaster’s ornamentation of the music – were two only of the many factors he employed to expound Haydn’s idiosyncratic musical argument in the most persuasive and satisfying ways.  


I noticed a few members of the audience closely following Lancaster’s performances in the printed score and scribbling comments in the margins, doubtless interpretative insights of a valuable sort to pass on to pupils.


It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this series. The chances of encountering these works here again soon as a cycle, are very, very small. In over fifty years of busy concertgoing, this has been the first opportunity I’ve had to listen to many of these extraordinary works in a single series.


Currently, Lancaster is recording the Haydn cycle of sonatas for the Tall Poppies label. 




The Classic 100

Australia’s 100 favourite symphonies

ABC Classics 480 2832/ 480 2837  8 CDs

reviewed by Neville Cohn

480 2842 Symphony 100 Box 3D

It was an event unique in the music history of Australia: a countrywide vote for the nation’s favourite 100 symphonies, an event hosted by The Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

This was not the first time that the ABC  – and the record label ABC Classics – had instituted an initiative along these lines – but not in relation to symphonies.

In earlier years, there had been nationwide voting to establish Australia’s tastes in chamber music as well as the piano repertoire, favourite Mozart moments and many other music genres along these lines.

This symphonic countdown was a particularly remarkable experience. After voting had closed, the ABC began the mammoth task of broadcasting each of the 100 symphonies in their entirety, starting with the symphony at number 100 ( by co-incidence, it was Haydn’s Symphony No 100).

It was a fascinating experience, not only listening to the works in their order of popularity but also to messages  – reactions, opinions, congratulations, reservations – from those many enthusiasts across Australia who phoned in to the ABC to share their views on the whole enterprise.

Has any other radio station anywhere provided such a mammoth listening experience?

The collection on the ABC Classics label – on eight compact discs – contains the ten symphonies voted as most popular in their entirety with a number of the remaining 90 symphonies each represented by a single movement. It’s not an ideal arrangement and

I’m certain that the compilers would have wanted all 100 symphonies to have been available in toto. But I imagine that the full collection would have been so expensive as to be beyond the pocket of many, if not most.

One would have to wonder how some of these works got onto the list – and how many votes were cast in total? Without this crucial component, one can only speculate.

Were the numbers so small as to be an embarrassment? I rather doubt that – but one cannot be sure.

How many voted for Ross Edwards’ Symphony? How many votes were cast in, say, New South Wales or the Northern Territory – or Christmas Island?

How many voters plumped for, say, Tchaikowsky or Sibelius? How did Brahms fare in Tasmania, say, or Haydn in Norfolk Island – or Messiaen in W.A.?

It seems to me that if such an ambitious enquiry into Australia’s symphonic tastes was undertaken, why not get the figures out there? And if whatever reason, voting numbers are to be suppressed, then why not provide percentage figures in relation to the total vote count which would certainly be of great interest.

Intriguingly, how many votes were cast in favour of symphonies that didn’t make the list at all? Which were they? How close did they come to inclusion?

The answer could well be revelatory – or not. Without these figures, one is left to surmise.

How many would have voted for Australia’s No 1 symphony – Dvorak’s New World, a worthy winner, although possibly a surprise to those who might have felt that  Beethoven’s Ninth or Tchaikovsky’s Sixth would be first over the line?

Audience tastes, of course, vary over time and place. Consider these results from a poll taken in 1938 by New York radio station WQXR. It makes fascinating reading:

Beethoven’s Fifth came out on top with 23.9% of the votes, Beethoven’s Seventh came second with 18.3% and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth came third with 16.5%.  Beethoven’s Ninth, Third and Sixth were respectively fourth, sixth and twelfth.

At the time, it was suggested by some commentators that it was only a matter of time

before the Seventh outstripped the Fifth. Time has shown that it didn’t happen. It  probably never will.

(I wasn’t able to obtain figures for other composers: placings for Dvorak, Mozart, Haydn and Mahler which would have made interesting reading.)

If, for whatever reason, the ABC Classics compilers didn’t want to reveal the voting numbers, it would surely have been a straightforward enough task to disclose the percentage voting figures as was the case with the New York radio station.

Although some of the recordings of the Top Ten works are of leading overseas orchestras, a very considerable number of the tracks on these eight CDs are by Australian orchestras, although one would wonder why the W.A.Symphony Orchestra is represented by only one track. The WASO’s form has come along impressively in recent years and it’s a shame it doesn’t have more representation on compact disc.

Apart from the top ten in toto, single-movement excerpts from 19 other symphonies round out the eight CDs of the set – ten hours listening time.

John Exton: an Appreciation

born Buckinghamshire, England 28 March 1933

died Perth 13 September 2009John  Exton

My first encounter with John Exton as performing musician was at a recital about 25 years ago in which he played a work that Bach had written for unaccompanied cello. John, though, most unusually, played it in a transcription for viola. I was at the time struck by the profound musicianship he brought to the task. It was a novel take on an established masterwork – but John, more often than not, approached life on his own, often unusual, terms.

Alan Bonds, who teaches violin at the University of Western Australia, recalls long ago domestic chamber music sessions presided over by John.

“It might start with a snack and a drink followed by an hour or two of  Haydn and Mozart quartets, more refreshments, then Beethoven or Schubert dragged out, then, after a midnight snack, Brahms might make an appearance – the quartets or sextets –  which often saw us to dawn. A swim at the beach might follow. I vividly remember John’s son Peter, then about 10 years old, appearing at the door of the living room around 2am, asking ‘Are you all totally mad?’ ”

John viewed the world through a singular prism, a man of very strongly held views, not easily swayed by a contrary opinion and not infrequently obdurate in defence of a point of view.

Young John took up the violin at the age of eleven and in 1950 became leader of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. He then read music at Cambridge, as a scholar, research student and later Fellow at King’s College.

He studied composition in London with Matyas Seiber who is believed to be the only composer to have met his end as a result of being sat upon by an elephant – and, after winning the prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship for composition, he studied with Luigi Dallapiccola  in Florence.

Two years’ National Service, involving work in acoustics with the R.A.F.,  bore fruit some fifteen years later in connection with an electronic studio in Perth.

Returning to Cambridge in 1960, John married Gillian Chadwick, a cartographer at Clarendon Press, and spent the next three years composing in an ancient thatched cottage with roses over the door and a huge open fireplace. He was awarded a Doctorate of Music by Cambridge University in 1964. He was then Director of Music at Bedales School in Hampshire for three years, before coming to Perth with sons Peter and Stephen. Gill recalls “we saw there was more room here, so we filled some of it with Jane. We bought an old house in Claremont, and John did things to it which gave him enormous satisfaction.“

During study leave from UWA in 1972, John visited several electronic music studios in USA and worked in one in Cardiff, Wales – and bought a fine 18th-century viola, an instrument after which he had long hankered but only played consistently from this time.

John would often swim against the tide. Although a product of Cambridge University, where the retrieval and preservation of early music performance practice was an article of faith, John would have none of it. His interest was in live performance – and he disapproved of recordings which he felt fossilized the experience of a piece of music.

As Alan Bonds points out, however, although John might have had little time for the music of, say, Elgar or Vaughan Williams, he would nonetheless use some of their works for the Student Chamber Orchestra at UWA and direct them with diligence and fidelity to the score – and there were adventurous excursions into lesser known repertoire by, inter alia, Purcell and Skalkottas.

Bonds, too, recalls with pleasure John’s immaculately prepared recitals with, among others, Madame Alice Carrard in repertoire which ranged from Bach to Webern.

John’s compositions range from orchestral pieces such as “Ryoanji” for 40 strings and percussion to works for solo oboe and solo violin. There are also seven string quartets and some electronic music works. An affinity for instrumental music and instrumentalists did not deter him from creativity in vocal music, producing, for instance, a setting of Hilaire Belloc’s Bad Child’s Book of Beasts for a concert by Kings College choir and a “Story of Christ’s Nativity according to St Luke for Bedales School. A highlight of his work in Perth was presiding over a performance of Bach’s St John Passion.

John’s interest in Buddhism, mainly Zen, had its origin around 1970 and developed

steadily. After a second trip to India in 1993, he encountered Theravada Buddhism which became important to him.

At John’s funeral, wife Gill said: “Our family has always been close and dear to us and some of our most valued times have been around the candlelit dining table, camping in the bush together and building our house in Kalamunda which we completed as a family team.”

Gardening was a long term delight and wife Gill says “he admired nature taking its course and interfered minimally with a mower or hand saw when grass grew or trees fell down. He grew vegies in Kalamunda when the family was at home but not by method. Results were variable.”

His garden, John said, had no weeds, for weeds were plants you don’t want and his were all welcome – and kangaroos came regularly to keep the grass short.

John Exton is survived by wife Gillian, children Peter, Stephen and Jane and eight grandchildren.

Neville Cohn

Stuart Hille contributes this recollection:

On, or very close to, John’s last teaching day within the (then) Department of Music, I came into his office to ask him a question about a particular student.  By this time, I had just returned from my studies in the USA and had taken up a teaching fellowship at UWA.  Of the many tutorials and lectures I gave, at least four were related to John’s course titled ‘Techniques of Musical Structure’.  Every student undertook this course over his/her first two years of the Mus.B. program.  It was a rite of passage about which, even to this day, I have never heard a word from a past student that wasn’t praiseworthy.

Without this two year course students would have had no understanding of modern counterpoint (or how counterpoint, in general, functioned, for that matter), harmonic and linear – including dodecaphonic – negotiation of atonality, and a assortment of related areas of creative techniques of prolongation.  John had designed and re-designed the course in his quest to make its content as creatively and mentally stimulating as he could, mindful of the knowledge he would, initially, need to clear away the musty, derivative and lazy thinking of the secondary school system.  And it was presented to students with a wit they wouldn’t have previously encountered, and in a manner that left no doubt about the depth of knowledge, and adoration of the art of music, of its presenter.

So, on this final day, I knocked on the door and entered the room.  There was John, standing up and leaning on a floor to ceiling bookcase (a position he often adopted when completing the cryptic crossword of The Australian newspaper) and he was discarding, what I assumed to be, a clutter of useless papers and files….clearing out the premises, as it were.  But, to my astonishment – no, my horror – he was throwing out ALL the folders and sheets, two year’s worth of indispensable education, of the entire course.

“What are you doing?” I asked with genuine dismay.  “It’s useless now.  This ‘lot’ (sic) won’t know what to do with it” he replied.  I then responded: “Well I do and I’ll take it” as I, presumptuously, reached into the rubbish bin and rescued every file.  I added: “And I’ll take these too” as I reached across for the other files awaiting to be similarly disposed of.  John then said: “You’re welcome to them Stuart.  Good luck!”.  My telling of the incident is poor because it disguises the fact that he and I were both somewhat outraged that such a vital body of information had nowhere else, other than the trash bin, to go to be further utilised.  The reader would need to have been present to hear the tone with which these words were spoken.

Over the years since, I have browsed through this course material and I have thought of ways to up-date it in places and to extend its reach to include ways of rhythmic variation, timbre as a unifying parameter, and even, during an additional year to start to introduce some higher level analysis (rather than the usual abrupt bolt to Schenkerism).  On the whole, I think John would have been pleased with the evolution of his course and I feel it’s about the finest tribute I could make to commemorate such an intensely gifted and creative thinker.

Each page brings back a memory of the day it was presented to me, as a student in class: “Stravinsky went slowly downhill after Le Sacre” or, my personal favourite: “The organ’s nothing more than a box of whistles…it’s true, think about it”.  So many gems, as they appear now, that felt like nasty stings at the time.  These memories show an important part of John’s educative strategy: to hit them when they least expect it and, while the gap thus created – between conscious searching and shock – is there, insert the new information.  This is the essence  of masterful teaching.

I don’t know what I’m going to do the new ‘Techniques of Musical Structure’ and perhaps, for the time being, it doesn’t matter.  I didn’t extricate the files to assuage John’s dark feelings about the department, for that was not my concern.  I delivered them for what they contained and how they could be further enriched.  It was unimaginable to me to try to visualise this mass of intelligence, insight and experience being ditched with the daily collected refuse of sandwich wrappers and cigarette butts.






Perth Concert Hall/Octagon Theatre


reviewed by Neville Cohn 



As we’re often told in newspaper, radio and TV advertisements, the homegrown product is often superior in quality to the imported variety.

This was very much the case when considering the relative merits of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Prague Chamber Orchestra, both of which featured in the 2004 Perth International Arts Festival.

Consider the ACO. Listened to in the air-conditioned comfort of Perth Concert Hall, which made this splendidly refurbished venue and its near-perfect acoustics all the more welcoming after a savagely hot and humid day, the Australian Chamber Orchestra staked yet another claim – quite irrefutable in my view – to be recognised and acknowledged as the nation’s foremost chamber orchestra and a major player on the world stage.

From the cluster of microphones suspended above the ACO, it could be presumed that its performance was being recorded. I very much hope that this was the case because, in decades of listening to live performances, I cannot recall a more satisfying account of Haydn’s Symphony No 49, know as the Passione.

Not the least of the pleasures of listening to the ACO is the precision of its intonation. Tuning backstage before making its entrance, the ACO is invariably spot-on, pitch-wise. This, in turn, enhances one of the ACO’s other strong points which is the care it lavishes on phrase-shaping. And the uniformity of tonal sheen in string playing was yet another fine feature of the performance.

Literally from bar one, this meticulous attention to moulding the various instrumental lines, and the resulting quality of harmonic tissue, yielded listening dividends of the most satisfying sort, not least in relation to beautifully realised tonal light and shade that added significantly to the tension generated in the opening Adagio. And how splendidly the second movement took off with its bracing attack and follow-through that did not so much attract the attention as seize it.

Horns and oboes were unfailingly stylish in the third movement. And in the finale, the joie de vivre with which these youthful players embraced the music, offered at an
unfaltering pace, thoroughly warranted the gales of applause that greeted its conclusion.

As always, Richard Tognetti kept the performance on track with the utmost economy of gesture. Certainly, with this intense focus on the minutiae of presentation together with an ability to present the ‘big picture’, as it were, yielded phenomenal listening dividends. And for this critic, in the presence of such musical distinction, there was little to do other than to sit back while acknowledging artistry of the highest order.

Emma-Jane Murphy, who has had a long association as principal cellist with the ACO, made a rare appearance as soloist in Tchaikowsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme.

In the accommodating acoustics of the Concert Hall, the Prague Chamber Orchestra, playing in ensemble with the Australian Intervarsity Choral Societies Association and four vocal soloists, seldom sounded less than adequate in Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. But in the far more unforgiving, dry acoustic of the Octagon Theatre, the PCO fared significantly less well.

Because of an acoustic that robbed string tone of much of its bloom (an effect made the more obvious when listened to from as close to the stage as the fourth row), small lapses in intonation and ensemble became glaringly obvious. And with little lift to the phrase as well as a tendency to clip phrase ends made this all-Mozart program a less than satisfying listening experience.

Prague, of course, was the city which, more than two hundred years ago, hosted the world premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. So there had been an added frisson of anticipation as the PCO launched into this curtain-raiser. Sadly, the players’ presentation of the overture faltered on a number of grounds, not least due to an unwanted raspiness as bows bit strings.

At a performance, only days earlier of Messiaen’s dauntingly complex Harawi, there was a phenomenal display of musicianship and musicality on the part of French pianist Cedric Tiberghien. He faced another great challenge in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A, K414, a challenge fully risen to only from the beginning of the cadenza of the slow movement.

Although, up to that point, he had brought notational accuracy and clarity to the piano part, Tiberghien’s playing on this occasion lacked that elusive X factor, difficult to define but instantly recognisable when it manifests itself, that had made his Messiaen offering such magical listening.

Trills were not quite evenly spun, the opening Allegro’s mood of blithness was not compellingly evoked, there was more than a little bass-register humming along on the part of the soloist – and that dreaded acoustic again ensured that some of the gloss was removed from the tone Tiberghien generated at the keyboard of a Steinway which would surely have sounded more satisfying in a more acoustically sympathetic environment.

But, after his retrieval of the initiative towards the close of the Andante, Tiberghien gave us playing that, notwithstanding extraneous features over which he could have had no control, was stylistically convincing and commendably expressive.

Listening to Mozart’s Symphony No 40 in G minor from the rear of the hall was a happier experience compared to what had earlier been heard from close up. The Octagon’s acoustical dryness sounded less ferocious from that vantage point. But one longed for rather more elegance to the shaping and tapering of phrases and a more uniform tonal sheen, especially on the part of the higher strings in the slow movement. Certainly, more might have been made of the serene and melancholy theme that makes this one of Mozart’s most beguiling essays in tranquillity. There was robust treatment of the minuet and the woodwinds (which had sounded unattractively blurred from close up in the Don Giovanni overture) came up trumps in the trio section of the minuet. And in the finale, the grittiness of string sound worked to the advantage of the performance, enhanced by strong, even fierce, rhythmic emphases.

© 2004