Tag Archives: Melba

In the Wake of the Great War


Benjamin Martin, piano


TTP: 62’ 08”

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Understandably, in this centenary year of the outbreak of World War I, there’s been a flood of recordings of music influenced by this terrible and protracted upheaval.


Pianist Benjamin Martin recently recorded a number of works for piano written in the early aftermath of this conflict.


Arnold Bax’s Third Sonata in G sharp minor is of particular interest. It came into being at a troubled time for the composer, his immediate family – and two women with whom he was having affairs. While hardly anyone these days cares tuppence whether people living together are married or not, in the 1920s cohabitation was considered scandalous and talked about in low voices.


Of Bax’s two mistresses, Harriet Cohen and Mary Gleaves, it was Cohen who was by far the most famous – perhaps notorious is the better word. Miss Cohen, in fact, had an affair as well with Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and extremely close relationships with other eminent Establishment figures.


Bax was Master of the King’s Musick – and uncharitable types would often snidely refer to Miss Cohen as Mistress of the King’s Musick. For years, Cohen was Bax’s muse, inspiring him to write many a work which might otherwise have not eventuated. The Sonata No 3 is in that category.


Its outer movements are turbulent and often confrontational, a response perhaps to the domestic quagmire Bax found himself in at the time, with much internecine warfare on the marriage front. Mrs Bax flatly refused to give her husband the divorce he wanted. And because of puritanical attitudes at the time, the Bax/Cohen liaison had to be conducted in furtive ways. The Sonata is dedicated to Cohen.


The first movement comes across as an extended improvisation, with mercurial sallies and bursts of energy that call to mind some of Scriabin’s busier piano preludes. There are also fleeting moments of tenderness. In less assured hands, this could all too easily come across as aimless, rambling, turgid and tedious. But Martin, with fearless fingers, steers a sure course through a musical minefield without coming to grief.


Martin sounds in his element in the slow movement which comes across as a murmuring, introverted sonic haze, like a peaceful nocturne – a calm harbour after stormy seas. And in the finale, Martin sails with elan and accuracy through a floodtide of notes.


Vaughan Williams’ Hymn-tune Prelude, also dedicated to Cohen, is an oasis of tranquillity, unhurried and beautifully considered, reinforcing that old saying that the best gifts often come in the smallest packages. It certainly applies here.


Three Preludes by Delius are frankly ephemeral, miniatures not without a certain faded charm, especially when presented with such insight as here.


Frank Bridge taught Benjamin Britten as a child and, in gratitude, Britten later wrote his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge thus ensuring the older man a lasting celebrity which his own music might not.


All praise to Benjamin Martin for taking us across Bridge’s musical terrain with such authority – but not even this fine pianist can bring a sense of meaning to a veritable tsunami of notes. Handwringing anguish, moments of nocturnal tranquillity, bunched chords, moments of ominous confrontation, filigree coruscations, deep bass rumblings – there’s no shortage of ideas. But just as preparing a cake using fine ingredients is not enough to ensure an appetising outcome unless the flour, sugar, baking powder are brought together in a way that ensures success, so mixing often worthwhile musical ideas without a carefully thought-through strategy, can result in disappointment – a musical cake fallen flat.


Here, Bridge throws into the mix villainously difficult filigree coruscations,

dreamy nocturnal moments, emphatic bunched chords, quiet bass rumblings. But despite these being handled with the skill and staying power of an Olympic athlete, one is left with an impression of a succession of ideas (many impressive and engaging) that calls to mind a number of articulate people busily talking but without listening to one another.





 Roger Benedict (viola), Ben Jacks (horn), Timothy Young (piano)

music by Charles Koechlin and Joseph Jongen

TPT: 68’36”

MELBA CD 301126

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Is there a more treacherous instrument in the string family than the viola? How intractable it can be to those many who endeavour to play it in tune but succeed only fitfully. But when Roger Benedict tucks it under his chin, how perfectly behaved it is. Here indeed is a viola tamed – and it does his master’s bidding to the most beguiling of ends in a way that most other violists would give their eye teeth to emulate. It is impossible to overstate the merit of this recorded recital; it brims to overflowing with good things, not least the stream of often exquisitely mellow tone which Benedict conjures from the instrument.


Here’s a fascinating compilation, well off the beaten track – and yet another instance of Melba’s adventurous forays into the seldom heard, even less seldom recorded.


Charles Koechlin’s Sonata for viola and piano (which years later would be followed by sonatas for cello and for horn) is a major opus to which both Benedict and Young bring a wealth of experience and insight.


Koechlin’s sonata is unlikely ever to reach the top ten of viola favourites. There is little about it which could be thought of as either memorably catchy or of Olympian profundity. But it is nonetheless a valuable addition to the sadly small repertoire of music for the instrument – and it is played with such beauty of tone and insights of such intense musicality that it holds the attention from first note to last. Certainly, the dark and sombre nature of the opening adagio is wonderfully evoked – as is the wild dance that is the essence of the scherzo. And the calm, thoughtful approach to the extended soliloquy which takes up much of the third movement is musical to the nth degree.


I particularly liked Koechlim’s Quatre Petites Pieces in which Benedict and Young are joined by Ben Jacks whose horn playing here is the stuff of aural delight, enchanting  moments that would surely charm the grumpiest bird from a twig. The musical chemistry of the trio is constantly apparent here, not least in the opening andante in which a songlike viola and Jacks at his winning best make magic. I particularly admired the skilled and most effective internal tonal balance. Young is everywhere convincing, not least in finely stated, rippling figurations in the movement marked tres modere.


Benedict and Young come up trumps, too, in four engaging pieces by Belgian composer Joseph Jongen. These, too, are as polished in presentation as the Koechlin works.

Turbulent Heart – music of Vierne and Chausson

Steve Davislim (tenor)

The Queensland Orchestra

Guillaume Tourniaire (conductor)


TPT: 76’32”

Melba MR 301123

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Vierne: Les Djinns; Eros; Ballade de desespere; Psyche

Chausson: Poeme de l’amour et de la mer

More often than not, compact discs bearing the Melba label remind me of books published by the Folio Society. The latter, as is well known to innumerable booklovers around the world, sets immense store by the quality of its publications.

As its many members know, Folio books are a joy to look at and a tactile delight. Much time and thought are devoted to choice of type font. Illustrations are often specially commissioned, bindings are invariably first rate. As well, each book comes in a finely made slipcase. In decades of membership, I have never encountered a volume that disappointed.

All this invariably comes to mind when listening to compact discs issued by Melba. As with Folio, every aspect of a Melba label compact disc production receives the most careful attention.

Liner notes, often lengthy and detailed, are invariably of high standard as are illustrations in the liner note booklets which are finely bound. There is, as well, a transparent slipcase.

But, as some might ask, what is the point of all this fine packaging if the recorded contents are less than completely satisfying. Happily, Melba label CDs are everything one could have hoped for. And Turbulent Heart meets the highest expectations. The performances are stylistically impeccable, every note clothed in tone of the most appealing kind. This recording is just about the last word in excellence. I have returned to it again and again.

I would be surprised if this CD fails to win over an enthusiastic constituency. It is a marvellous presentation of music seldom heard. Stylistically impeccable, its presentation is a triumph. I recommend it unreservedly.






BEN JACKS (horn soloist)

BARRY TUCKWELL (conductor)

The Queensland Orchestra; Orchestra Victoria


Damase: Concerto pour cor et orchestre (1995)

1. Moderato (6.08)

2. Allegro scherzando (2.23)

3. Andante (4.07)

4. Allegro vivace (3.36)

Koechlin: Poeme pour cor et orchestre (1927)

5. Moderato, tres simplement et avec souplesse   (5.44)

6. Andante, tres tranquille, presque adagio (4.02)

7. Final, assez anime cependant (4.38)

8. Damase: Rhapsodie pour cor et orchestra* (1987) (14.40)

9. Dukas/Terracini: Villanelle** (1906) (6.19)

10. Saint-Saens: Morceau de Concert pour cor et orchestra (1887) (8.47)

11. Marshall-Hall: Phantasy for horn and orchestra (1905) (10.18)

*world premier recording  **ditto, in this version

Despite knowing Barry Tuckwell – the horn player with ‘golden’ bel canto – retired from solo performing in the late 1990’s, one still, albeit momentarily, immediately and nostalgically thinks one will hear his magic at work on any new disc devoted to horn music (and bearing his name on the cover).  But this latest Melba Recording shows his magic at work as a conductor (of The Queensland Orchestra and Orchestra Victoria) as he provides

steadfast support and subtle interaction with another horn player: Ben Jacks.  A changing of the guard perhaps?

Not Quite.  However it could be forgiven for assuming there would be, at least stylistically, a similarity between Barry Tuckwell, in his peerless days, and Ben Jacks, who has just crossed the starting line.  There would be an ‘en rapport’ of the minds.  But Jacks is no Barry Tuckwell.  His style, approach and his sense of shading are altogether different.  It might be argued that his technique doesn’t, as yet, have the satin finish or fluency of the master but, as this disc so nicely projects, Jacks has a fine talent which will mature technically as it continues to assert its stamp of individuality.  Moreover, it is a bit unfair to compare a present-day aspirant to a legend.

The disc leaves little room for equivocation about its target audience, which happens to be the bulk of the concert-going audience.  It does, however, seem a pity to bring together all this Australian flair and dexterity in the service of so much tonal or quasi-tonal French music.  One began to sense a distinct lack of music which possesses true rhythmic edge and harmonic bite, so to speak.  For example, the opening item – ‘Concerto pour cor et orchestre’ by Damase – was written in 1995 but, for the most part, would probably have been considered passé in 1895!

Damase has made much of his “sincerity” in composition…as he turns his back on Messiaen, Boulez and even ‘Les Six’.  It isn’t his sincerity one would question in this concerto (or his orchestration, which is impeccably textbook) but his mode of telling, which is anachronistic to the point of aristocratic aloofness.  Even the developments of Debussy, who, incidentally, won the Prix de Rome just 63 years prior to Damase’s bestowal, are ignored.

Having to perform a score which is weak in design and stereotypical in language doesn’t appear to have detracted from Jacks’ excellent moulding of phrases or displaying flexibility of timbre, nor a listener from appreciating these qualities in his playing.  The ‘Moderato’ movement is the longest of the four by a considerable amount, in French horn terms.  But at no point could one fault the soloist’s approach.  Similarly, the orchestra, while giving him both fine support and balanced interaction, was beautifully unified and technically copperplate.

The ‘Andante’ (third movement) afforded Jacks the opportunity to display his excellent breath control through extended lines.  He always reserved just sufficient to neatly complete the passage.  Nor did he lose the characteristic warm, dark beauty of tone over a surprisingly wide range (a true Tuckwell hallmark).  One was also struck by the orchestra’s rich, Philadelphia-honeyed tone: Romantic music’s soul mate!



The ‘Allegro’ movements of the concerto were brief to an extent that made one ponder why it is that ultra-traditionalist composers appear to experience difficulty sustaining a fast paced musical discourse.   Whatever the reason, such an architecturally frail structure doesn’t give the soloist a chance to show a sense of large scale thinking in his performance.  As more and more fiercely competitive and gifted younger soloists come forward, the more and more one is hearing such questionable nooks and crannies of the  repertoire and, consequently, the more one finds oneself writing how impossible it is to critique a performer’s ability to negotiate overall dynamic form.  And this is a case in point. 

This recording also contains Damase’s ‘Rhapsodie pour cor et orchestre’, commissioned by Barry Humphries and premiered, in 1986, with Tuckwell as soloist.  There’s a lot to remark on those facts alone; not the least of which is why Humphries, who I wouldn’t have thought of being that much of a traditionalist, commissioned a Frenchman and why, specifically, Damase.  Perhaps what is more consequential is the programmatic outline of the commission: “inspired by the ocean and the atmosphere of the coast”.

Programmatic music depends entirely on who listens to it – a detail some composers and most audiences, in a moment of wistfulness, seem to forget.  Generally the composer provides a few ‘shared’ musical archetypes to help guide the imagination, but there are no motivic antecedents or dynamic rises and falls or even the plaintive cry of some seabird in Damase’s ‘Rhapsodie’.  In fact, there are so many gestures – unrelated gestures – all jostling for face-room and for no ostensible reason, that one wonders what’s holding the music together…apart from stylistic clichés.

And it pains the heart to realise that Ben Jacks’ excellent perception of sound colour is using this music as its showcase.  The score certainly requires considerable dexterity of the soloist and, in that sense only, Jacks executes such difficult passages with admirable panache and security.  It would be a delight to round off this compliment by mentioning the soloist’s ability to punctuate the texture with precision and poise but, as the music hasn’t a skerrick of rhythmic vitality, it is impossible to do so.

Paul Dukas’ ‘Villanelle’ (orchestrated by Paul Terracini) is, compositionally, more successful.  This is somewhat at odds with the fact that it was written as a competition piece (for horn and piano).  True to its purpose, it contains almost every conceivable technical snorter and arabesque.  But the musical thread is maintained while traversing the minefield.

In this performance, the horn and orchestra (much to the arranger’s credit) combine to find a depth of interplay that one wouldn’t expect to come across in a work designed, primarily, to winnow competitors.  They convincingly balance the performance to give the final climax its proper emphasis.  Jacks sure-footedly, but never hastily, negotiates the difficulties with notable élan.



While the recording has other works – each portraying a different view of late French Romanticism – it is Marshall-Hall’s ‘Phantasy for horn and orchestra’ that stands out as an oddity.  Its aberrance lies, firstly, in the fact that it was written by an Englishman (an Englishman living and teaching in Australia) and, secondly, the intrigue surrounding his life.

In purely musical terms, the ‘Phantasy’, despite displaying some fairly interesting and slightly quirky Wagnerian harmonies, lets the listener’s mind wander when it shouldn’t.  Also, unless I’m shamefully mistaken, Jacks doesn’t quite reach a few of the lowest notes with the same degree of confidence he has shown elsewhere on the disc.  To call this a ‘minor offence’ – words with which Marshall-Hall would, I’m sure, agree – would be an over-reaction.

This is a disc which shows class and finery in all aspects of production.  If you enjoy your music with every note glowing in Romantic French splendour then this is your type of recording.  While you relish its lyricism and sentimentality, spare a moment to realise these younger Australian musicians are, steadily and confidently, attempting to try on the mantles of master performers.  It’s a journey in process, as this album shows.

Stuart Hille 2009.

N.B.  The information leaflet, which isn’t one of those ‘struggle to pull out/can’t push back booklets’, is to be lauded.  Its author, John Humphries, plots the history of the evolution of the horn and relates it to the music being offered.  He should start ‘how to’ classes in leaflet writing because, in this instance, his notes are exemplary.


Stuart Hille  2009.