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Richard MILLS (b. 1949)
Aeolian Caprices

Queensland Symphony Orchestra/Richard Mills;
Soundscapes for percussion and orchestra; Seaside Dances; *Fantastic Pantomimes
Queensland Symphony orchestra/Geoffrey Spiller
*Gerhard Mallon, flute; Anthony Camden, oboe; Paul Dean, horn; Geoffrey Spiller, trumpet
Recording dates 1983; 1988; 1990. nothing else specified

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Having listened to this CD a few times I have to admit I am ashamed that I did not realise, to quote the booklet essay, that "Richard Mills is deservedly one of Australia’s most sought after composers and music directors." On the evidence of this CD, he’s a fine percussionists also. Richard Mills was a new name to me; I suspect I am not alone in that. I generally keep my finger on the pulse of BBC Radio 3’s weekly offerings but I cannot recall his name being listed in Radio Times. Perhaps contemporary Australian composers have an even lower-key profile than our own. For further proof consult the index of the latest Oxford ‘History of Western Music’, volume 5!

Anyway, Mills has written symphonies, concertos, incidental music (for example for the Olympics of 1982 and 2000) and several ballet scores which have been recorded by ABC. If I come across anything else by him I shall snap it up as I found this CD very impressive indeed.

To put him in an Australian context, his style is not as atonal (if I can describe it as that) as his older contemporary Peter Sculthorpe (b. 1929) or as easy-going as Nigel Westlake (b. 1955).In fact Mills studied in England with Edmund Rubbra when the latter transferred to part-time work at the ‘Guildhall School of Music’. One thing, as I have good cause to know, that Rubbra instilled into his pupils was the need to search for ones individuality or personality. This was to be done not by gimmicks but by musical means: technique, orchestration and colour. These lessons have certainly washed off on Richard Mills. Incidentally the composer has also achieved a conducting career and has won several composition competitions.

Let me start with Soundscapes for which Mills is the soloist. This is a very impressive piece. Nocturnal passages of delicacy and crepuscular orchestration (helped by the exotic percussion) create a totally original sound-world which in all probability could only have come out of Australia. The work follows a clear and unusual formal pattern. I could go on. Unfortunately however the recorded balance is most disappointing and is not a good advert for ‘live’ recording. The booklet notes do not let on that it the recording was taken down ‘live’. That said, the audience appears spellbound; it is only at the end that they make their presence felt with cheering and applause. However the soloist is far too close and the brass, let alone some of the woodwind, sound as if they are in another room. I found myself wondering how much more impressive the orchestration would seem if the engineers had balanced things better.

As a ‘taster’ the CD opens with Aeolian Caprices, a kind of overture described as "a short, vibrant showpiece based on an harmonic system derived from the tones of the Aeolian mode." Its slow-moving harmonic progress is descanted by fast whirling passages which run gaily around it creating a piece full of joy and light. Very thrilling!

Seaside Dances, scored for what the composer describes as eighteen solo string players, might almost be described as a piece of light music. It consists of six movements with titles like ‘Maggie & Milly & Molly & May’ and another, ‘Shell Song’. It is not however light-weight being based on lines by e.e. cummings quoted by the composer in the very useful accompanying booklet. To ‘taste’ this piece sample the CD, if you can, by going for track 9 the ‘Star dance’. This is almost a Scherzo with tremolando strings forming a bed under a scurrying melodic line. Invocations of the sea immediately appear to the mind, a kind of sunny Benjamin Britten without the windswept grey horizon. The string writing reminded me of the ‘Frank Bridge Variations’ both in its sound and technically; no bad comparison you will agree. Also recalled are the sea sounds of Grace Williams’ Sea Sketches also just for strings.

The last work in Fantastic Pantomimes, a kind of huge orchestral seventeen minute scherzo, this is scored for orchestra with a concertante group of flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet and horn treated and played virtuosically by a wonderful group of soloists. Mills writes: "The concertante can be considered as characters in a kind of instrumental theatre". It is certainly a wild romp through a glut of astonishing sounds.

The performances are mostly of top quality although I have a strong feeling that there is some scrappy ensemble from time to time in the fleeting scherzo sections of Soundscape.

To sum up: I recommend this disc in ABC’s budget Eloquence series. It is very generously filled and I hope we can soon hear more of Richard Mills. If you are inquisitive, ‘go for it’.

Gary Higginson

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