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John ANTILL (1904–1986)
An Outback Overture (1954) [7:57]
Corroboree (1946) [41:09]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
rec. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 8-10 June 2006
NAXOS 8.570241 [49:06]
Experience Classicsonline

John Antill might well be one of these composers known for one single work although in Antill’s case that work was generally more widely discussed than actually heard. His ballet Corroboree - the suite drawn from it - was once fairly well known thanks to Sir Eugene Goossens’ recording. Many went as far as proclaiming it the first truly Australian music and a landmark in Australia’s musical history. All this may have more than a grain of truth since Corroboree might well have been the very first Australian work based on Aboriginal music written down by the composer-to-be in 1913. It also folds in a generous harvest from many musical trends of his time. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring often lurks around the corner as well as jazz, which sometimes makes for a rather curious mixture.

The opening section Welcome Ceremony certainly brings Stravinsky’s ballet to mind but is also redolent of the music of Revueltas (his formidable Sensemaya). The whole suggests a sort of raw primitivism perfectly attuned to its subject. This fairly long, percussion-led and often ostinato-based section, may be one of the most successful ones of the entire work. It is followed by five considerably shorter episodes before the large-scale finale: Procession of the Totems and Closing Ceremony. The first of the aforementioned shorter pieces, Dance to the Evening Star with prominent oboe and celesta parts (a shade of Holst’s Venus here) is quite delicately scored. A Rain Dance reverts to the primitive mood of the opening section. It opens with an impatient gesture underpinned by percussion. Brass add weight to the textures while the dance proper unfolds alternating leisurely and more dynamic episodes. The effect is spiced by the flute’s high-lying screeches, the whole sustained by heavy ostinatos. The ensuing Spirit of the Wind is – appropriately enough – a fleeting scherzo again punctuated by brass and percussion. The music swirls away into thin air. In Rising Sun, the writing is once again strongly energetic and in complete contrast with the next section The Morning Star which is characterised by subtle percussion, harp, celesta and woodwind. As already mentioned, the final section is by far the longest of the whole work, but not necessarily the most convincing. Procession of the Totems, that might have usefully recalled the opening section, is at times a bit too long. This long movement restates and reworks material from the preceding sections. At first it builds up to some big cathartic climaxes achieved by accumulation rather than development of earlier motifs. In fact there is more: after a loud tam-tam crash, the music starts all over again with much brass and percussion, the latter being at times left on its own in cadenza-like episodes. The music apparently comes to a standstill over rattling percussion which launches the final dance of the Closing Ceremony. This ends in complete frenzy punctuated by the terrible other-worldly sound of the bull-roarer. Terrific!
I may at first have sounded a bit lukewarm; but, all in all, Antill’s Corroboree is a fine score. It includes some impressive scoring although it would be idle and – more importantly – meaningless to compare it either to Stravinsky’s innovative and ground-breaking Rite of Spring or to Prokofiev’s decibel-loaded Scythian Suite. It nevertheless deserves to be heard complete, especially when played with as much commitment and obvious relish as it is here. The New Zealanders do the Aussie proud.
There is no reason to complain about their involvement in their performance of Antill’s somewhat later An Outback Overture. It is a rather run-of-the-mill concoction that does not add much to the composer’s reputation. Pleasant enough for the occasional hearing it lacks genial tunes of the sort that make light overtures successful. Some have done that much better.
Anyway, the complete Corroboree is the work that makes this none too generous disc worth acquiring both for those new to the piece and for those who cherished their long-deleted LP recording by Goossens. I had never heard either the complete work or the suite so I was delighted to have such a nice opportunity to do so. I wonder what are Antill’s other works like? Well worth more than the occasional hearing.
Hubert Culot


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