An excellent, general introduction to the music emanating
from New Zealand in the late twentieth century, excluding only the more
recent discoveries, e.g. Lyell Creswell (well represented on other Continuum
discs) and Jack Body (you may have heard his wonderful miniature Long
Ge on the Kronos Quartet's Ancient Music).
The double CD kicks off with Douglas Lilburn (often
described, with good reason, as the doyen of NZ composers) and his early
Aotearoa Overture, named for the Maori name for NZ and translating
as "land of the long white cloud". An elemental piece, complete with
Sibelian inflections, it is nonetheless less granitic and more overtly
optimistic than the formidable symphonies (check the recent Naxos release),
a factor that gives it a more American, "wide open spaces" feel than
the later works, though think more in terms of David Diamond than Roy
Harris at this juncture.
The short Anthony Watson piece (Prelude and Allegro
for Strings) that follows is an altogether more astringent affair,
although in the most listenable sense of the word, often evoking Bartok
or, if we are to pursue the Nordic comparisons, Vagn Holmboe.
Ritchie's The Hanging Bulb is an introspective
tour de force that features a moody and drifting extended opening section
before exploding in a burst of nervous energy which turns into something
that could be perhaps described as quasi-minimalist in its Adams like
feel. Despite its rather grim origins (see the booklet note for details),
this work impresses with its deftness of touch and subtle yet strong
evocation of ambiguous feelings.
Blake's Till Human Voices Wake Us is an extended
piece for tenor and orchestra that is reminiscent at times, both in
structure and feeling, of Kenneth Leighton's powerful final movement,
also for tenor and orchestra, to his third symphony. The texts, taken
from "classics of the NZ peace movement", in some ways belie the brooding
intensity of the music - uneasy but gripping listening.
The first disc concludes with Gillian Whitehead's Resurgences,
a work inspired by the geothermal activities of her homeland. It seems
no coincidence that she studied with Peter Maxwell Davies in that comparison
of this music with some of the later of his more serious pieces (e.g.
the 5th symphony) seem entirely justified. The same,
powerfully distilled evocation of primal nature, again subconsciously
echoing Sibelius (?), is definitely present here.
Disc 2 is a generally lighter affair but contains some
exquisite music. Jenny McLeod's spiky, bustling Little Symphony
sets the tone in one sense in that it brings Igor Stravinsky into the
frame of influence but the rest of the music on this disc is rather
less abrasive. Farquhar's suite from Ring Around the Moon is
not a thousand miles removed from some of David Lyon's recent efforts
but with some additional acidic barbs to liven things - the composer
mentions Mahler and Schubert (presumably the martial pastiches) as influences
but the burlesque side of Stravinsky and the film music and jazz suites
of Shostakovich also loom large. In terms of memorability the jaunty
Polka takes the prize, coming on like a lost piece from Berners'
The Triumph of Neptune. The suite as a whole is, I'm sure, something
that connoisseurs of ASV's White Line imprint would lap up.
Pruden's beautiful Harbour Nocturne could well
be my favourite piece on this recording. It is a gentle but evocative
and atmospheric coastscape that would not appear inferior alongside
Copland's less ebullient but still accessible moments (Quiet City,
New England Countryside etc.). Carr's ballet that follows couldn't
be more different but is also an eminently listenable piece - Stravinsky
(again!) and Tchaikovsky as influences are again evoked and, unsurprisingly,
thoughts turn to Jeu de Cartes and Fairy's Kiss. The booklet
quotes his disdain for the "decadence of European art" and I am sure
that we all understand the subtext of this comment and would concur
or disagree according to personal preference. As far as I am concerned,
I wouldn’t want to listen to it every day (there are not many things
I would!) but it is far preferable to many more "serious"
pieces, both past and present.