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Peter SCULTHORPE (b. 1929)
Earth Cry (1974) [13:55] *
Memento Mori (1993) [14:29]
Piano Concerto (1983) [21:26] #
From Oceania (1970; 2003) [5:32]
Kakadu (1988) [15:44]
William Barton (didjeridu)*
Tamara Anna Cisłowska (piano)#

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
rec. Wellington Town Hall, 10-12 Sept 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557382 [71:06]

Peter SCULTHORPE (b. 1929)

Earth Cry (1974) [13:55] *
Memento Mori (1993) [14:29]
Piano Concerto (1983) [21:26] #
From Oceania (1970; 2003) [5:32]
Kakadu (1988) [15:44]
William Barton (didjeridu)*
Tamara Anna Cisłowska (piano)#

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
rec. Wellington Town Hall, 10-12 Sept 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557382 [71:06]

A magnificent collection of some of Peter Sculthorpe’s best works. Sculthorpe seems not to have gained the recognition he deserves in the UK; especially having a UK-based publisher, Faber Music Ltd. This has long struck me as a great shame. Sculthorpe’s music has a very immediate element to it, one that seems instantly geographically linked to the wide spaces of Australasia.

Of course the use of the didjeridoo takes us immediately into the world of the aborigine. Earth Cry refers to the need of Australians to listen to the sounds of their own, surrounding, nature in the way that the Aborigines have always done. [Try the book Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan, a travelogue of a Westerner who walked, memorably, with the aborigines.] The didjeridoo possesses this earthy sound; indeed within its overtone-laden ‘voice’ is something that appeals directly to the primal in all of us. One of the strangest and most prized recordings I own – it was only made, to my knowledge on cassette, is of didjeridoo duets. Sculthorpe memorably juxtaposes the active didjeridoo of the opening with sudden, glowering Romantic strings. Many of Sculthorpe’s characteristics are on offer in this short work including motoric rhythms. He can generate tremendous excitement as well as real calm. I remain intrigued by what sounds like a laughing hyena around 8’30; is it the soloist singing through the didjeridoo? But most memorable aspect is the sense of a vast open space that appears later in the piece.

Memento Mori (literally, ‘remember to die’) is inspired by Easter Island and its great stone heads, a memento mori for this planet. Much is made of an oscillation between the pitch-classes G and A flat, which the astronomer Kepler believed to be the sound at which the earth itself resonates. The plainchant ‘Dies irae’ also forms part of Sculthorpe’s musical material. Strangely, and unexpectedly, Sculthorpe uses harmonies that are almost English-pastoral (around 3’40ff); a sort of Down-Under Vaughan Williams. But what resonates most is the hypnotic, slow-moving sense of the eternal. This is surely a reference to those heads on Easter Island; they look as if they have been there since Creation.

The Piano Concerto omits flutes and clarinets from the scoring, leaving a ‘reed choir’ of two oboes, two bassoons and a contra-bassoon to provide the wind element. Written in 1983 this was a reaction to a time of Sculthorpe’s life when death seemed a recurrent theme. Several close friends died, and Sculthorpe himself was involved in a near-fatal crash. The work serves to remind us - and him, probably - of life-affirmation and its power.

In terms of the piano writing, the work seems mostly to be the antithesis of the conventional solo-vehicle. Hypnotic, almost meditational from the off, not to mention hyper-gentle, every note drips with resonance. The piano is frequently allotted obsessively-repeated figures. Harmonies can glow, but equally the climaxes can be granitic; try around 4’40, with its keening trumpets and chord of marble from the excellent young pianist, Tamara Anna Cislowska. The cadenza around twelve minutes is gripping, and for an example of Sculthorpe’s ear for sonority just try around 17’24, where glittering piano figuration adorns a lonely cello melody. Magnificent.

The short, percussion-dominated From Oceania is the final part of Sculthorpe’s Music for Japan, written for the Australian Youth Orchestra to play at Expo ’70 in Osaka. As the composer puts it, ‘Composed in my Sun Music style, I thought of it as a present to Japan from Australia’. There is surely a Varèse influence here in the dense writing and the wind pitch-bends. Whatever the case, there is no doubting the fact that this music travels a long way in a short space of time (5’32).

Kakadu is named after the Kakadu National Park in Northern Australia, a place of huge wilderness and home to the gagadju people, a tribe that dates back around 50,000 years. Like the landscape, the music speaks of vast things. Sculthorpe injects local colour by the use of indigenous chants in his melodic material. The solo cor anglais, that crops up, memorably, on several occasions, is stunningly played here. Alas the player is uncredited. Intimations of nature, primal rhythms and a sense of space conjoin to reaffirm Sculthorpe’s importance. There seems to be no-one quite like him. This Naxos release, given its very freedom of availability, should go a long way to propelling Sculthorpe to his rightful place in our contemporary musical consciousness. Given Sculthorpe’s dedication to the powers of Nature and his evident belief that music can speak in this regard much more eloquently than words, it would appear he has important things to say. We should listen, and carefully.

Colin Clarke

see also review by Rob Barnett

see also Sculthorpe collection on ABC

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