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Peter SCULTHORPE (b. 1929)
Earth Cry (1974) [13:55] *
Memento Mori (1993) [14:29]
Piano Concerto (1983) [21:26] #
From Oceania (1970; 2003) [5:32]
Kakadu (1988) [15:44]
William Barton (didjeridu)*
Tamara Anna Cisłowska (piano)#

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
rec. Wellington Town Hall, 10-12 Sept 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557382 [71:06]

The appearance of this disc coincides with a recently released Sculthorpe collection from ABC (476 192-1 [70:40]). The Australian disc has Earth Cry [11:06]; Mangrove (1979) [15:05]; Songs of Sea and Sky (1987) [16:04]; Kakadu [16:14]; From Ubirr (1994) [12:10]. The artists include William Barton (didjeridu) who also plays the same instrument on the Naxos with the Queensland Orchestra conducted by Michael Christie. Only two works overlap and Sculthorpe’s many admirers must have both discs.

The new Naxos CD sounds stunning - a magnificent piece of work technically and artistically. The gravelly abrasive bass reaches out to the listener. Earthcry is deeply moving seeming to speak to the listener in alien but enthralling ways across the millennia. As for the didjeridu its role is as crucial as that of the duduk in Avet Terteryan’s Third Symphony, as the Uillean Pipes in Fleischmann’s Clare’s Dragoons, as the whale sounds in Hovhaness’s ... And God Created Great Whales and as the avian tapes in Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus.

Memento Mori is founded on reflections on the fate of the people of Easter Island who despoiled the land and then destroyed each other. The piece has dignity and pomp and a grandeur of purpose which combines the weighty tread of William Alwyn’s Hydriotaphia, Hovhaness’s most tragic utterances and Rubbra’s symphonic gravity. The work makes sparing use of the Dies Irae and grounds this with the oscillation on the pitches G and A flat - said by the astronomer Kepler to be the sound of the planet earth. The ecological message is clear and there is a redemption in hope in the sweetened writing for strings at 10:40 onwards.

It is good to hear Tamara Anna Cisłowska again. She has made some very fine recordings reviving what you might call ‘art nouveau’ Australian piano solos as well as featuring on Chandos’s recording of the Rawsthorne piano concertos. Here she is the soloist in Sculthorpe’s Piano Concerto written in five segments in a style which the composer tells us is in step with the European concert tradition - I wouldn’t set too much store by that if I were you. This is a not a conventionally turbulent virtuoso-heroic piece. It is more contemplative than dramatic. During the work’s composition three of the composer’s close friends died and he was involved in an extremely serious accident. That payload of loss is felt in the tragic oppression of the opening and at many other times throughout the work. At one time the composer considered calling the concerto Pacific. In an extended calm section (e.g. at 9.14) the piano chants calmly away in a mood close to the most romantic Schumann crossed with Nyman and with the heritage of gamelan and gagaku synthesised into the ideas and their presentation.

From Oceania is indebted to the last part of his orchestral work Music for Japan. The composer’s own very helpful and lay-accessible notes say that he treats the orchestra here like a giant percussion instrument. Pretty much on-song as a description. Interesting to have but this short work but it lacks the intriguing otherworldliness of the later works featured on this disc.

Kakadu is a reference to the National Park of that name. It was commissioned by Emanuel Papper as a gift for his wife on her birthday. The work reflects Sculthorpe's affection and awe for this wilderness territory. It operates as a twentieth century tone poem accepting that it would be rashly unfashionable for the composer to have called it that. The finale sounds like a distorted echo of the closing pages of Bax’s Tintagel. The piece ends in a very satisfying way but the whole thing fails to cohere in the ineluctable way that Memento Mori and Earth Cry do.

Tasmanian composer Sculthorpe's psychedelic images of primeval times, nature and infinity are well worth your trouble. A superb and breathtakingly inexpensive disc. Miraculously good value at every level.

Rob Barnett

see also Sculthorpe collection on ABC

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