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Tall Poppies

Woman’s Song: Australian settings of poetry by Judith Wright
Margaret SUTHERLAND (1897-1984)
Six Australian Songs (1950-1963) [19:07]1
The World and the Child (1959) [10:28]*4
Ross EDWARDS (b.1943)
The Lost Man (from Symphony No.2) (1996-1997) [6:59] 3
Richard MILLS (b.1949)
Woman to Man (2004) [18:48] 2
Ian MUNRO
Return (1992) [3:41] 3
The Forest (1992) [4:30] 3
Moya HENDERSON (b.1941)
Woman’s Song (1971) [2:00] ** 5
Elizabeth Campbell (mezzo), Ian Munro (piano); * Elizabeth Campbell (mezzo), Marina Marsden (violin), Justine Wickham (viola), Susan Blake (cello); ** Elizabeth Campbell (mezzo)
rec. 1 Studio 200, ABC Sidney, March 2003; 2 Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Melbourne, April 2004; 3 Studio 200, ABC Sydney, February 2005; 4 Studio 200, ABC Sydney, March 1997; 5 Studio 227, ABC Sydney, February 2005. DDD
TALL POPPIES TP179 [66:29]
 

Born in 1915, Judith Wright became one of Australia’s most important poets. Her work is striking both for the power with which it confronts the relations between Man and Nature and for the almost daring sensitivity with which it deals with human love. Her best work has a precision of language and an impressive formal sense. She became a vigorously active environmentalist and a campaigner for aboriginal land rights, especially in the last forty years of her life (she died in 2000). It is right and proper that her work should have attracted the attention of Australian composers and this interesting CD samples some of the resulting settings.
 
As well as settings of individual songs there are two song-cycles here. Margaret Sutherland’s 6 Australian Songs is perhaps unified (textually) only by the sensibility of its common source. Here are Wright’s responsiveness to the natural world (‘Bullocky’, ‘Winter Kestrel’), her powerful love poetry (‘Woman’s Song’) and her characteristic compassion (‘The Twins’, ‘The Old Prison’). Here, too, is her almost mystical fascination with the paradoxically illuminative power of darkness (‘Midnight’), with its tremendous opening stanza, both very personal and deeply traditional:
 
                        Darkness where I find my sight,
                        shadowless and burning night,
                        here where death and life are met
                        is the fire of being set.
 
In 1923 Sutherland visited Europe, spending time in Vienna and London especially, where she was befriended by Sir Arnold Bax. She returned to Australia in 1925 and was, for the rest of her life, a potent presence in the musical life of her homeland. She was a modernist by inclination, and a woman; two facts which did little to endear her to the Australian establishment. Recognition of her work came pretty late in her life. 1997 saw the publication of David Symons’ book The Music of Margaret Sutherland (Currency Press, Sydney), which argues that she was the first native Australian to work, in Australia, in idioms akin to those of her contemporaries in Europe. Symons’ book contains an excellent discussion of Sutherland’s solo songs. These settings of Wright have some quirky harmonies, some unexpected melodic leaps and display a highly intelligent responsiveness to the details of the texts. There are many very effective moments of word painting, but such details are never allowed to obscure a larger musical logic.  
 
In his booklet notes Gordon Kerry suggestively describes Richard Mills’ Woman to Man as “a kind of Australian Frauenliebe und –leben”. What he means, I take it, is that in his choice of texts – using poems collected between 1946 and 1953 - Mills has created a female testimony to the experience of love (and Wright’s poems are surely not inferior to those of Adalbert Von Chamisso). The settings by Mills, who studied with Edmund Rubbra, are everywhere sympathetic, rising to moments of great intensity, well performed by Elizabeth Campbell and Ian Munro. The setting of Wright’s ‘A Song to Sing You’ is particularly fine, the text’s self-referential allusions to its own creation are nicely handled and the piano part, in particular, responds unobtrusively to the poem’s extensive imagery from nature.
 
Of the individual poems by Wright, Margaret Sutherland’s setting of ‘The World and the Child’ is the most substantial. What must be the same performance was previously issued on Tall Poppies TP116 (see review), who pointed to affinities with Britten, Arnold Cooke and William Alwyn in the attempt to give an idea of the way it works. It is a fine piece, in which the writing for string trio is quite lovely, not least in a brief instrumental postlude. ‘The World and the Child’ brings the best out of Elizabeth Campbell; a moving meditation on childhood innocence and experience, on death and the world, it is, for me, the highlight of this CD, a minor masterpiece which deserves to be far better known.
 
‘The Lost Man’ is an arrangement for voice and piano of a setting which appears in the Second Symphony by Ross Edwards. It is done with subtlety and restraint, for all the rich abundance of Wright’s language. I should like to hear the Symphony of which it is part. Ian Munro’s two settings are thoroughly assured – the piano writing in ‘The Forest’ is especially effective –  but perhaps they add less to one’s understanding of their texts than is the case with some of the works already discussed. The same is true of Moya Henderson’s brief setting of ‘Woman’s Song’, written as a canon for 4-part women's choir – here all parts are sung by Elizabeth Campbell.
 
There is nothing here that is less than interesting, and the work of Margaret Sutherland is outstanding. Elizabeth Campbell sings with astute understanding and technical certainty and Ian Munro does a magnificent job as accompanist. Full texts are included.

Glyn Pursglove
 
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