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Derek STRAHAN (b.1958)
Rose of the Bay

Lauris Elms (mezzo-soprano)
David Miller (piano)
Deborah de Graaff (clarinet)
Recorded 3-4 December 1987, ABC Studios, Australia
REVOLVE RDS-003 [51.51]


Substantially self-taught as a composer, Derek Strahan studied modern languages at Cambridge and went on to combine a career as a film and television script-writer with writing music, notably film scores. The song cycle Rose of the Bay is the result of a commission from the Australian mezzo-soprano Lauris Elms in 1987 for Strahan to write a song cycle set in Sydney. The work was premiered at the Sydney Opera House and the work’s dedicatees went on to make the present recording in the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The cycle consists of nine songs, setting poems written by the composer. The composer’s intention was to create a cycle that had a dramatic unity with a rather operatic narrative. Strahan sets his own words in a sort of continuous arioso which gives the work the feel of one continuous work rather than nine discrete movements. The theme of the cycle is not a description of Sydney so much as the exploration of a love affair which takes place over the cityscape.

The composer writes tonally but in his programme note he says that he uses ‘the rhythms and extended harmonies of jazz as a musical expression of the urban setting’. The resulting instrumental texture is rather busy and strenuous, giving the piece a slightly relentless feel. The composer seems to allow himself (and his performers) few moments to relax. The consequence of the jazz influence is the inclusion of much syncopation and polytonality. The writing is generally very chromatic and the accompaniment particularly rhythmic. The vocal lines are always expressive and singable. The singer is never asked to do anything unreasonable, though the rather extensive range of the vocal part does tax Lauris Elms in the lower register. Unfortunately I did not find any of the musical material particularly memorable or evocative. Perhaps this was not helped by the fact that Elms’ diction is a little patchy. She delivers a truly committed performance, rising to the work’s challenge magnificently, but the words do not always come over well. This can result in odd phrases of the text being spot-lit in an unsatisfactory manner.

When reading the composer’s own text, the words come over as surprisingly poetic. I could have imagined a quieter, more subtle setting of the words. But of course, this would have been less urban, less evocative of the cityscape.

Strahan includes quotations and reminiscences into the musical fabric of the piece, notably the popular song ‘Yes, we have no bananas’, re-used to set the words Yes, we have no relationship.

All the performers give a magnificent performance of the piece. Both Deborah de Graaff and David Miller make light of the difficulties of their music and the often strenuous nature of the music.

This is a valuable disc, recorded just after the first performance of the piece. I could imagine a more relaxed, perhaps more subtle, performance of the music but here the work’s dedicatees give a truly strong, dedicated performance.

Robert Hugill

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