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Roger SMALLEY (b. 1943)
Chamber Music: Chopin Variations for piano; Piano Trio; Poles Apart for ensemble; Trio for clarinet, violin and cello; Crepuscule for piano quartet; CHOPIN (1810-1849) Mazurka in C# minor; BRAHMS (1833-1897) Intermezzo in E minor Op. 116 no. 5
Douglas Finch (piano)
Continuum Ensemble/Philip Headlam
Recorded at the Church of St. Jude on the Hill, Hampstead, London, July 2003
NMC D083 [78.12]

I can remember being knocked sideways by a performance of Roger Smalley’s ‘Missa Brevis’ for sixteen solo voices in the late 1960s. Several year later I had the thrill of singing in it. It occurred to me then that the voices were used in an electronic way, if I can put it like that. This was at a time when Smalley was much under the influence of Stockhausen. So I was not at all surprised when Smalley teamed up with the late, and much lamented, Tim Souster, to create many electro-acoustic works even if they were of dubious musical worth.

The NMC company recorded Smalley’s 34 minute ‘Pulses for 5x4 Players’ in 1994 ( NMC DO17M) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It is for brass, percussion and ring modulation and reflects his many preoccupations. These include "variable Moment-Form, live electronics, improvisation and the use of space".

With this new CD we can see how Roger Smalley, now living in Australia, has moved on again. Here the electronics have been abandoned. Chopin and Brahms are now seemingly unlikely inspirations, and he is adopting more conventional instrumental groupings. However none of this music, which is in my view of outstanding interest, would have been possible without his earlier experiences and experiments.

The work which I especially enjoyed and which is the longest piece on the CD is ‘Crepuscule’ for piano quartet of 1998. Here the form and inspiration are fascinating. The composer visited an art exhibition of works by Lesley Duxbury and discovered fifteen postcard sized paintings "hung in three horizontal rows of five boxes with highly suggestive one-word titles." Smalley used these titles and wrote a set of fifteen variations on the theme of Brahms’ Intermezzo in E minor Op. 116 no. 5, a recording of which immediately precedes the work. The work is more tonally based than say the Piano Trio (although hardly diatonic). Each variation is for a differing instrumental combination culminating in the fifth variation of each of the three sections/movements when the whole quartet play. A considerable variety of texture is available and the form is clear.

Form is also clear in the other works. For example the ‘Chopin Variations’, is a set of twelve variations on the Mazurka in B flat minor Op. 24 no. 4. It is formally classical and straightforward but also arresting.

The ‘Piano Trio’ is in two movements each divided into two parts. Smalley writes "The material in this trio is based on an extremely chromatic eight-bar harmonic progression that occurs towards the end of Chopin’s A flat Mazurka". The form is a fairly classical, being a slow introduction leading into a Scherzo. The second movement is a Passacaglia and then a set of Variations.

‘Poles Apart’ is in three movements. Again it betrays a classical format with a Chaconne and Chorale to end. This is based on an eight bar sequence from Chopin’s Mazurka in C# minor Op. 50 no. 3. There is a solemn, rather chromatic yet formal fugue initiated by the cello. I never thought that I would hear this kind of music from Roger Smalley. It comes as a particular surprise after the syncopated, energetic and jazzy but atonal opening ‘Fast and Furious’ movement.

The ‘Trio’ for a standard, classical format of clarinet, viola and piano, lasts just over ten minutes.

Whilst writing it the composer writes "my thought turned to the late sonatas of Brahms ... In particular the first variation of the Sonata in E flat Op. 120 no. 2." It begins slowly with a singing melody on the viola. The Brahms fragment reappears from time to time from which "everything that follows is derived".

This is strong and characterful music. It demands your attention but is not overbearing or ugly. Many ideas seem to delve deep into the listener’s psyche, tapping some childhood memory. Rhythmic display is prominent but used at the service of the overall form of the music and as a contrast to what is often a thoughtful and profound statement. There is some real fun and enjoyment for its own sake in the use of colour and polyphony which is especially marked in ‘Crepuscule’.

All in all I recommend this CD highly but do not expect immediate gratification.

Finally, a word about the booklet notes. NMC do not ‘dumb-down’ to readers and listeners and that certainly applies to these notes. However they are not abstruse or deliberately obscure. There is an introductory essay by Christopher Mark and background notes on each piece by the composer.

Gary Higginson

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