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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Roger SMALLEY (b.1943)
Symphony and Piano Concerto
Piano Concerto (1985)

Roger Smalley (piano)/West Australian SO/Diego Masson
rec ABC Basil Kirke Studio, Perth Australia 19 Feb 1987
Symphony (1981)
Sydney SO/Patrick Thomas
Rec ABC Studio 225, Sydney, Australia, 13-14 Feb 1985
VOX AUSTRALIS VAST 003-2 [57.10]

You remember Roger Smalley, don't you? If you were listening to BBC Radio 3 or had access to off-air tapes in the 1960s and 1970s you will have known him as a practitioner of the wilder avant-garde.

He worked closely with Tim Souster especially in the field of electronic music. Souster and Smalley formed Intermodulation an ensemble realising electronic scores and toured throughout the UK from 1969 until 1976. He made common cause with Stockhausen and gave the UK premiere of his piano pieces. Sadly he does not have a place in Mark Morris's 'Dictionary of Twentieth Century Composers'.

Like Roger Woodward (he of the wild starburst of hair) Smalley left the UK for Australia in the 1976 just as the sun began to rise on the traditional tonal music which Smalley has so condemned. He was born in Swinton and was a pupil at Lee Grammar School (where, as Francis Routh reminds us, Peter Maxwell Davies had been a pupil). Music and science were natural companions in his studies. His composition teacher at the RCM was Peter Racine Fricker. When Fricker left for California Smalley continued his studies with that prolific progenitor of piano sonatas, John White. Darmstadt and Stockhausen's Köln were among his early stamping grounds.

The two works on this disc are in a single movement though with divisions that are apparent to varying degrees. They lack any electronic element apart from the tactful electronic organ in the Symphony. They are both avant-garde and with a strong atonal element. There is some recognisable heroic material especially in the Piano Concerto as well as a touch of the macabre in the Symphony which I recall created quite a stir at the time of its 1982 Downes-conducted Prom premiere in the Royal Albert Hall. People were somewhat surprised that Smalley should have written a symphony. The piece began as a string quartet in Feb 1979 and was an elaboration of his two piano piece Accord (1976). He completed the piece 1981 after a Prom commission from the BBC.

Let it be said straightaway: the Piano Concerto is an extremely exciting and cogent piece of writing. The work is alive with barbed and thunderous life: gawky and pugnacious with explosive, hammered rhythms. Stravinsky and Prokofiev are clearly shaping influences. There is much terracing of dynamic extremes with harrying, creeping and slithering strings. This is music not in thrall to tonality but then neither is it as desiccated as say the Piano Concerto by Elliot Carter - which is amongst the toughest of challenges and one from which I have turned away (hear the Jacob Lateiner RCA LP from the 1960s). Lovely textures squirm, slide and fluctuate slowly and fast. This is as rich with allusion as Messiaen's Couleurs de la Cité Celeste and Turangalila. After 18 minutes of exuberance the orchestra bows away and leaves the piano alone to muse in a quiet and consonant dream. The piano then rushes in a syncopated and jazzy (20.50) moto pepetuo with gruff brassy barks and bells. The pianist lays about him as he goes.

The Symphony is much more rugged going requiring the aural-mental equivalent of an all-terrain vehicle to get any hold on the grand span. It is not as directly exciting a work as the Concerto. Its origins partly as a memorial to Pauline Steele (the dedicatee, who died of cancer at the age of 32) may explain this. The two segments which make up the piece comprise a sequence of eight large-scale development sections (the composer's description) followed by a theme and 12 variations incorporating a capering plague dance at 16.19 and an eruptive sea storm at 24.10. The piece plays out with a solo cello, the instrument of Gregory Baron, the close friend and companion of Pauline Steele. Baron is the founder of the West Australian String Quartet.

The recording is of vivid colours variously shrill, strident, refined and whisper-tender. Award-winning stuff - especially the Concerto.

The five pages of English-only notes are by the composer. The two works are each allocated a single track.

Recommended for those with stiffened sinews.

 

Rob Barnett

AVAILABILITY

This disc can be ordered from the Australian Music Centre

Phone +61 2 9247 4677

Fax +61 2 9241 2873

Info@amcoz.com.au

www.amcoz.com.au


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