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Peter SCULTHORPE (b 1929)
G’Day Australia!
Walking Upsidedown (1939) [3:42]
Susan’s Hair (languido) (1967) [5:48]
Bouncer (scherzo humoristique ma patetico) (1967) [4:07]
Erin’s bro, Conor (1955) [6:34]
Johnners (Leg Over) (1991) [3:26]
Pas de fumer [3:03]
Harold, the Bishop with his friend the carpenter (religioso) (1960) [4:09]
Paul who robbed his son (1982) [4:27]
This Door is Alarmed, This Window is Petrified (2004) [3:37]
Vroom, Vroom (1 to 5: The MG scherzo) (2008) [6:32]
G’Day Australia! – A Concerto for Didjeridu and small orchestra (2007) [18:36]
Ramsay Street (piano)
William Barton (dijeridoo)
Toowoomba chamber players
Rec. 01 April 2007 Verbrugghen Hall of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music
Experience Classicsonline

It’s hard to believe that Peter Sculthorpe will be 80 years old in 2009, with well over 50 years of composition behind him. His works range over all the musical forms – Concerto, Orchestral music (the four Sun Music works being, perhaps, the best known of these), song, piano pieces, opera and, his major achievement, sixteen string quartets (so far). Much of his output has been recorded, and next year I am sure we can expect more, but now a young company has inaugurated its catalogue with a very special tribute, and one which no-one (perhaps not even the composer himself) could have expected, even as an early birthday tribute.

The founder of the company, Fremantle Vynile, studied with Sculthorpe and knew that he kept some "special" pieces in his bottom drawer. The composer has often said that over the years he had written "portraits" to commemorate friends, places and events from his life, but only for his own pleasure and not for public consumption. We must, therefore, be grateful to Vynile for persuading Sculthorpe to open that drawer for us and allow us to hear a mere handful of these pieces in newly prepared editions. Indeed, so interested was Sculthorpe in the project that he took time off from the composition of his latest (16th) Quartet to make these new arrangements.

So here we have a set of 12 pieces that follow one after the other. What they are all about is important so I’ll take a quick look at each piece.

Walking Upsidedown (1939) is one of Sculthorpe’s earliest existing works. At school one day his teacher told the class that people in the northern hemisphere always joked that Australians walked upside down because they were on the other side of the world and this made the young, fledgling, composer write a piece which, half way through, turns upside down, the bass becoming the treble and vice versa.

Susan’s Hair refers to a neighbour in the 1960s who had long hair to her waist, then one day she had it all cut off and wore it to her shoulders thereafter. The music starts in a languid mood then speeds up as the scissors start their relentless chopping, the music ending with a downward rush as the cut hair falls to the floor and a short lament regrets the cutting.

Bouncer is about just that, a bouncer at a local nightclub Sculthorpe frequented just after his return to Australia from studies in England. The bouncer was desperate to be an actor but, as is the case, had little talent for it hence the subtitle of the piece. "A lovely man," says Sculthorpe, "but dear, oh dear!"

Two crickets-based pieces follow. Sculthorpe has always been a cricket nut and composition takes a back seat whenever Australia is playing international matches, in fact there was some confusion over the completion of one of his more recent works when Australia lost the Text series in England and the Sculthorpe household was almost in mourning for several days.

Erin’s bro, Conor, reflects on an Irish brother and sister who lived at the corner of the street in which Sculthorpe lived whilst studying with Wellesz in Oxford. Conor was, like Sculthorpe, a cricket nut and the two spent many hours studying Wisdon and attending cricket matches. This piece, somewhat cleverly, mixes English and Australian rules. The music is based on 8 beat phrases (8 balls in an Australia over) and 6 beat phrases (6 balls in an English over), the two phrases follow one after the other until 97 beats have been played and the music falls down (97 being a feared number in Australian cricket as it is three short of a century), then the music starts again until 111 beats have passed and once again the music breaks down (111 being the English cricketers equivalent of the Australian 97) This process is repeated several times until finally someone hits a six and the ball (or beats) soar away into the sky.

The second piece derives from the BBC Radio Test Match commentary and is the only time Sculthorpe has used a pre-recorded CD in his music. At the Oval Test in 1991, Ian Botham fell on his wicket and was judged to be out. Quite right and proper. Unfortunately the BBC commentator made a slight slip of the tongue and hilarity ensued. Commentator Jonathan Agnew said: "He lost his balance and the tragic thing about it (is) he knew exactly what was going to happen. He tried to step over the stumps and just flipped a bail with his right leg…He just didn’t quite get his leg over…" and, starting with Brian Johnston, the whole team spend the next 42 seconds in glorious merriment. Totally schoolboy, of course, but a sheer joy. What Sculthorpe neglects to tell us is that in that innings England was all out for 419. The music consists of a series of climbing movements which collapse until off come the bails and the commentary takes over. For sheer joyousness you cannot beat this track.

Sculthorpe’s dedication to the great game cannot be over-stressed. One of his prized possessions is a near complete collection of Wisdon (one of the finest in private hands in Australasia), many signed by the players whose achievements on the field are recalled within its yellow covers.

On a rather sad note, Sculthorpe told me that just as the disk was going to the manufacturers he heard of the death of Conor in an air crash (his body was never discovered) and as Sculthorpe has memorialized people in some of his most serious works (Irkanda IV (1961) – his first masterpiece and the first true masterpiece of contemporary Australian music - was written in memory of his father) he has started work on a new String Quartet to commemorate his friend. Sculthorpe says that this new quartet will be a 20 minute threnody based on Irish reels and jigs and he refers to it as his begob and begorrrrah quartet.

Pas de fumer is a lament for the time Sculthorpe stopped smoking. A difficult listen for anyone who has undergone the same fate. Harold was a Bishop who spent all his free time working with the homeless and who befriended a carpenter and gave him work. After the carpenter had built a loo for a small church on the outskirts of Sydney, he started rehabilitating himself thanks to Harold.

Paul who robbed his son is a portrait of a neighbour who turned out not to be the hard headed businessman everyone thought him to be but a petty thief.

This Door is Alarmed, This Window is Petrified came about after Sculthorpe saw a sign on a door at the ABC Studios in Sydney saying that the door was alarmed and Sculthorpe naturally took the thought to the next stage. A piece of chattering nonsense from the ensemble here. The final piece, Vroom, Vroom (1 to 5: The MG scherzo) celebrates Sculthorpe’s love of the motor car, especially the MG, of which he has owned several. It’s a headlong dash down country lanes, main roads, motorways, meetings to get to, rehearsals to attend, premieres to be in attendance. A screech of tyres brings the toccata to an abrupt halt as he is stopped by the police for speeding.

A fascinating look into a side of Peter Sculthorpe which is totally unknown to his many fans worldwide. This is Peter Sculthorpe the larrikin!

To fill up the disk Sculthorpe realized that he had never given William Barton a piece which was entirely his. The composer has reworked many of his pieces, especially the Quartets, to include a part for didjeridu, specifically for Barton, but he’s never written a piece expressly for Barton until now. G’Day Australia is Sculthorpe’s response to this omission in his catalogue. As he writes in his witty and informative note in the booklet, "it’s one thing to write a Concerto for an instrument which can play great tunes (whether the performer can play the instrument or not) but it’s quite another to write a large scale work for a solo instrument which can’t even play tunes!" Sculthorpe gets round this problem admirably by basing the music on certain events in the life of Ned Kelly, the (in)famous bushranger. This is another homage to William Barton who is a keen student of the exploits and life of this iconic figure in Australian history. The first movement is rhythmic and depicts the wide open spaces of the outback. No Dreamtime here, just a hard life with no respite. The slow movement is a nocturne, a reverie of stars and clouds before the last movement, Showdown, bursts out and depicts Kelly’s final confrontation with the Victoria police force on 28 June 1880 when Kelly was shot between six and twenty eight times (reports vary) in his legs, before being captured, tried and finally hanged on 11 November of that year. The work ends with a lament for the man and the people involved with him, gang members and civilians alike, who died as a result of his actions.

It’s a serious end to a most enjoyable disk, but at the same time it’s an uplifting work which compliments the frivolity of the rest of the programme. It’s the biggest work here and all the pieces are of various durations, some of which are longer than others.

All the works receive excellent performances by the Toowoomba chamber players, an ensemble of one each of woodwind and brass, string quartet, bass, keyboards and percussion, to which Sculthorpe has added his beloved didjeridu. Special praise must go to the young pianist Ramsay Street, who, quite rightly, gets special billing on the disk, for his contribution cannot be ignored. The fistfuls of notes he has to essay is positively breathtaking. This is Street’s first recording – he won the first Alice Springs All-Comers Piano Fest two years ago and a well deserved win it was too. The disk was recorded in the Verbrugghen Hall of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the beautiful rich sound of the hall is in full evidence in the recording.

In the midst of all this light heartedness, we must not forget Sculthorpe’s standing as an Australian Treasure (succeeding one of his greatest heroes, the cricketer Don Bradman), an honour bestowed on the most important people in their field by the National Trust of Australia. At the ceremony where he was inducted during his speech the presenter of the award told the audience that Sculthorpe was a National Treasure for his orchestral works and especially for his string quartets (which numbered 15 at the time), saying that he knew that not just the Australian public but music lovers the world over could rest assured that this Australian had, "…reached the very top of the tree in string combinations". The audience roared its appreciation.

Sculthorpe has told me that this disk will not be released, more likely, he says, "it will escape into the world on an unsuspecting public at the beginning of April". And you are welcome to enjoy it as it deserves.

Bob Briggs





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