Carl Vine has been firmly established as one
of Australia’s leading composers for some years now although in
the U.K. his name may be most familiar to many for his orchestral
work, Descent, which figured as a finalist in the very
first Masterprize competition several years ago.
This first volume in Tall Poppies’ anthology
of his chamber music concentrates on the years 1983 to 1990, as
Vine’s reputation was growing. It contrasts a number of works
for ensemble, including those specially written for Flederman,
the contemporary music group of which Vine was a co-founder, with
the Piano Sonata and two solo works with electronic tape.
The Piano Sonata No. 2 appears on volume 2.
Although works such as Café Concertino
are built around specific harmonic cells and their derivations,
Vine’s principal pre-occupation in the early 1980s was rhythm.
Most of these works employ a high degree of rhythmic structure
and complexity. Intricate contrapuntal lines, passages of motoric
velocity and elaborate cross-rhythmic constructions push the virtuosity
of the players to a considerable degree. This is evident from
the opening bars of Café Concertino, a work that
neatly captures the essence of Vine’s work at the time and has
become one of his best-known pieces. Centred around a fundamentally
simple cycle of fifths that Vine then subjects to an involved
process of elaboration and expansion the piece is cast in four
continuous but clearly discernable sections. It is scored for
flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano. Even in the slower
passages the rhythmic obsession remains. As with all of these
pieces the overall language is approachable and although often
tonally ambiguous the music remains basically rooted in harmonic
and melodic consonance. The performance given here by the Australia
Ensemble has all of the momentum and rhythmic clarity expected
from an ensemble that must be more than familiar with the composer’s
The other two ensemble works featured, Miniature
III for flute, trombone, piano and percussion and Elegy
for flute, cello, trombone, two percussion, piano and organ explore
similar aural territory but are ultimately quite different in
character. Vine has the advantage of knowing the players of Flederman
intimately and Miniature III was written for them on a
personal level, very much in the mould of a virtuoso showpiece.
There is certainly some fine individual playing, the three continuous
sections effectively showcasing the players and introducing some
taxing rhythmic challenges once again. Elegy explores a
different world, written in response to the sudden death of a
close friend of the composer. This is the toughest of the ensemble
pieces to access, clearly personal and emotionally wide ranging
in its juxtaposition of violent outbursts of anger, questioning
moments of repose and gentle beauty.
It is in the Piano Sonata with which the
disc opens however that Vine is at his most impressive. A virtuoso
pianist himself he clearly writes both challengingly and effectively
for the instrument. Loosely based around the structure of Elliot
Carter’s 1946 Piano Sonata, the work is in two substantial
movements. These are, in effect, the opposite of one another,
the first slow-fast-quick, the second fast-slow-fast. Once again
rhythm is the driving force yet allied to this Vine gives the
piece a harmonic and melodic cohesion that stems from the audible
and logical working out of his basic material. Michael Kieran
Harvey gives a dazzling display of pianistic fireworks in the
densest passages of polyphony and is admirably nimble in the breathless
moto perpetuo of the second movement.
Alongside a work as impressive as this the shorter
pieces featuring electronic tape, one with trombone and the other
with solo percussion, are disappointing. Simone de Haan is a competent
soloist in the lyrical, stratospheric trombone lines of Love
Song. There is percussion writing of interest in the Concerto
(this work also exists in a version for percussion and orchestra).
However the somewhat banal part for tape, a mostly dated sounding
amalgam of synthesised sounds, leaves little impression.
Something of a mixed bag overall then but the
real evidence of Vine’s talent lies in the striking Piano Sonata
followed by the energetic Café Concertino and Miniature