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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    




REVIEWS OF FIVE ABC CLASSICS CDs OF THE MUSIC OF PETER SCULTHORPE

Peter SCULTHORPE (born 1929)
Little Nourlangie (1990)a
Music for Japan (1970)b
Piano Concerto (1983)c
The Song of Tailitnama (1974)d
David Bury (organ)a; Mark Atkins (didjeridu)b; Tamara Anna Cislowska (piano)c; Kirsti Harms (mezzo-soprano)d; Sydney Symphony Orchestra; Edo de Waart
Recorded: Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, February 1996
ABC CLASSICS 454 513-2 [52:35]

 

Memento mori (1993)
Sun Song (1984)
Sun Music I (1965)
Sun Music II (1969)
Sun Music III (1967)
Sun Music IV (1967)
From Uluru (1991)
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra; David Porcelijn
Recorded: Adelaide Town Hall, November 1995 and November 1996
ABC CLASSICS 454 505-2 [60:49]

 

Earth Cry (1986)
Irkanda IV (1961)a
Small Town (1976)b
Kakadu (1988)
Mangrove (1979)
Donald Hazelwood (violin)a; Guy Henderson (oboe)b; Sydney Symphony Orchestra; Stuart Callender
Recorded: Sydney Town Hall, February and July 1989
ABC CLASSICS 426 481-2 [56:20]


 

Port Arthur: In Memoriam (1996 [two versions])
Djilile (1988, arr. 1996)
The Fifth Continent (1963)a
Lament (1976, arr. 1991)b
Little Suite (1983)
Night Song (1976)
Peter Sculthorpe (narrator)a; Sue-Ellen Paulsen (cello)b; Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra; David Porcelijn
Recorded: Ballroom, Government House, Hobart, June 1996 and March 1997 (Port Arthur: In Memoriam)
ABC CLASSICS 456 363-2 [63:24]


 

Port Essington (1977)
Lament for Strings (1976)
Irkanda IV (1961)a
Sonata No.1 for Strings (1983)
Sonata No.2 for Strings (1988)
Sonata No.3 for Strings (1994)
Australian Chamber Orchestra; Richard Tognetti (violina and director)
Recorded: Sir Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Centre, March 1995 (Lament) and January 1996
ABC CLASSICS 454 504-2 [75:48]

Australia’s most celebrated composer, Peter Sculthorpe has a sizeable body of works in almost every genre to his credit; and his music has been well represented on discs. His output includes many highly personal statements as well as a number of shorter, occasional or lighter pieces composed or arranged to fulfil all sorts of commissions. These CDs offer a quite comprehensive, though far from complete, survey of his compositional activities. Several works are repeated on several of them, albeit sometimes in different versions. Thus Small Town (1975) which is actually the central movement of the radiophonic work The Fifth Continent for narrator and orchestra and which has later achieved an independent life of its own. This delightful piece is a near-cousin to Copland’s popular Quiet City and is an ideal concert opener. Thus, too, Irkanda IV of 1961, which the composer now acknowledges as his first mature work and which also exists in several different versions, as the one for strings and percussion which became another movement of The Fifth Continent, but – curiously or significantly enough – the original version for violin, strings and percussion remains one of Sculthorpe’s most popular and most widely performed works. Port Essington (1977) for string trio and string orchestra originates from a score written for an ABC-TV film concerning the attempted military settlement in Essington in far North Australia. This was in 1838. The site was abandoned eleven years later. The music "exists on two planes: the string orchestra (the Bush) and the string trio playing some sort of 19th Century salon music". (Ironically, though, the music played by the trio is a "bowdlerised" version of the Aboriginal melody on which most of the ‘orchestral’ music is based.) The string trio progressively becomes engulfed by the string orchestra, and the work ends with a varied restatement of the first movement (The Bush). Lament exists in a version for string orchestra (1976) and in another for cello and strings (1991), and has been recorded and performed in both versions. Night Song is yet another example of an early work rescued and re-arranged by the composer. This was actually a song, to words by Tony Morphett, from Love 200 (1970) for two voices, rock band and orchestra, and of which Sculthorpe made a version for string orchestra in 1996. (There also exists a version for clarinet trio made for the Verdehr Trio and recorded by them on CRYSTAL CD 746.) The Little Suite for strings of 1983 is in fact a transcription of three early piano pieces that are also part of Four Little Pieces for piano duet (1979). Finally, the orchestral version of Djilile is based on an Aborginal song also quoted in Port Essington and in Kakadu, and this too has been arranged for various forces (e.g. cello and piano, and string quartet). It is incidentally one of the few Aboriginal songs ever quoted by Sculthorpe.

Substantial pieces have also been arranged or transcribed. The most important examples are the three Sonatas for Strings. Thus, Sonata [No.1] for Strings is an arrangement of the Tenth String Quartet made in 1983 for the Australian Chamber Orchestra that recorded it twice, whereas Sonata No.2 for Strings is an adaptation of the somewhat earlier Ninth String Quartet of 1975 and Sonata No.3 for Strings is an arrangement of the Eleventh String Quartet Jabiru Dreaming of 1990. These pieces stand remarkably well in their "orchestral" guise and compare favourably with, say, Walton’s arrangement of his String Quartet in A minor or Fenby’s arrangement of Delius’ String Quartet.

It goes without saying that Sculthorpe is much more than a gifted arranger of some of his earlier works. This attitude rather reflects his practical and pragmatic approach to music making; and true to say that some of these arrangements are more satisfying than their original versions. Also, Sculthorpe is never one to waste a good idea, especially if this is rescued from a discarded piece. He composed a great deal of highly personal and often original music; and his substantial Sun Music cycle, which has done much for Sculthorpe’s reputation, belongs to such works and is, to my mind, among his most successful and impressive achievements. Sculthorpe has often commented about the Australian sun (a friend and an enemy, as Roger Covell rightly remarks) and the powerful and lasting impression made by the Australian landscape, be it wildly luxuriant or cruelly sun-drenched. He also often stressed the fact that his own world actually stretches from Bali to Japan and Mexico. Much of his music is thus deeply and lastingly influenced by different musical cultures, most importantly by Bali and Japan. The Sun Music cycle presents a fascinating synthesis of all these often diverging influences that have moulded Sculthorpe’s music. Originally, though, this orchestral cycle was not planned as such; and its genesis is worth briefly recalling. Sun Music I (1965), scored for strings, brass and percussion, was suggested to the composer by Bernard Heinze who asked whether a work without melody, rhythm and harmony was possible. Sculthorpe faced the challenge but, in his own words, approached it in a positive way. The result was Overture, as the work was blandly titled then, a brilliant orchestral essay in which the composer’s aural imagination was given full expression. It also laid the basis of much of Sculthorpe’s later orchestral music. The original Sun Music II was a work for voices and percussion not known as Sun Music for Voices and Percussion and independent from the orchestral cycle. So, the orchestral Sun Music II was composed last, in 1969 (it then bore the title of Ketjak, i.e. "Monkey Dance") whereas Sun Music III was originally known as Anniversary Music (it was commissioned to mark the occasion of the 20th anniversary of ABC’s Youth Concerts in Australia). The idea of a cycle only arose in 1968 when Robert Helpmann made a ballet Sun Music using the existing Sun Music pieces and including some new material that became the basis of Sun Music II; and the Sun Music series, when performed complete, is some kind of symphony of which Sun Music II is the Scherzo and the Bali-inspired Sun Music III the slow movement. Sun Music I-IV are wonderful examples of Sculthorpe’s orchestral mastery and ability to conjure some personal impressionistic writing through ear-catching sonorities, lively, dance-like rhythms and a bright orchestral palette. To a certain extent, Sun Music I-IV might be the musical equivalent of Sidney Nolan’s paintings.

Other sizeable orchestral works such as Kakadu (1988), Earth Cry (1986) and Mangrove (1979) clearly belong to the same individual sound world and evoke wildly varied landscapes and partake to Sculthorpe’s own brand of Impressionism although Earth Cry has some unexpected valedictory tone absent from the other pieces.

Music for Japan, commissioned by the National Music Camp Association for performance at Expo ’70 in Osaka, is probably Sculthorpe’s most radical orchestral work. It is a substantial work for large orchestra with optional didjeridu (on tape) and some pre-recorded sounds. This is also – and significantly so – a quintessentially Australian work written about Australia for Japan. The music is mainly made of massive blocks of sounds and clusters juxtaposed and often crashing into each other, with much rhythmical variety, and brilliantly scored. It forcefully suggests the wild variety of the Australian landscape in a most impressive way. This is undoubtedly one of Sculthorpe’s greatest achievements, though definitely a hard nut to crack.

In total contrast, the Piano Concerto of 1983 reflects the composer’s impressions of Bali and the music has a distinctively Balinese flavour without ever slavishly imitating Balinese music. This mellifluous and warmly song-like piece is one of the composer’s most approachable major works, and no wonder too that it has become one of his most popular.

The Song of Tailitnama for soprano, 6 cellos and percussion, was originally written for an ABC documentary film. Sculthorpe devised his own material from both Aboriginal and Japanese sources, but nevertheless succeeded in doing something entirely personal out of these diverging sources. The piece is beautifully atmospheric, full of Sculthorpe fingerprints, and may – to some extent – recall Villa Lobos’s celebrated Bachianas Brasileiras No.5.

Memento mori (1993) has a somewhat misleading title, though the inclusion of the Dies irae in the outer sections clearly confirms that this piece is a threnody, not in memory of any particular victims, but rather in memory of all earlier civilisations, long-disappeared by now. The work was partly inspired by the past history of the Eastern Island (Rapanui).

Some of the shorter works may be occasional pieces, but they are always superbly crafted, colourfully scored and often quite appealing. So, From Uluru, Port Arthur: In Memoriam (a short, deeply-felt elegy of quite moving simplicity) and Little Nourlangie for organ and orchestra.

As already mentioned, these CDs offer a comprehensive and excellently played survey of Sculthorpe’s varied, colourful, sincere and often gripping music; and are thus desirable. However, this might prove too much for some tastes. I would then suggest that the Australian Chamber Orchestra CD (ABC 454 504-2) with the works for string orchestra or the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra one (ABC 456 363-2) with some of the lighter works are the best possible introduction to his music; but I firmly believe the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra disc (ABC 454 505-2) with a.o. Sun Music I-IV and/or the Sydney Symphony Orchestra one (ABC 454 513-2) with Music for Japan and the Piano Concerto are, no doubt, the ones to have for there are some of Sculthorpe’s greatest works.

Hubert Culot

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