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John CARMICHAEL (b. 1930)
Solo Flights: Piano Music
Bravura Waltzes (1990) [11:05]
Spider Song (1995) [2:11]
Sonatine (Pastorale; Interlude; Toccata) (2001) [10:40]
Bagatelle (1956) [3:05]
Latin American Suite (Bahama Rumba (Caribbean); Habańera (Havana, Cuba); Joropo (Venezuela/Colombia)) [9:21]
Damon Suite (juvenilia) (1946) (Prelude; Sarabande; Waltz; Arabesque) [8:13]
Gestorter Traum (Troubled Dream) d'aprčs Franz Liszt [5:01]
Hommages (Manuel de Falla; Francis Poulenc; Gabriel Fauré; Maurice Ravel) [11:41]
From the Dark Side (1992) [14:52]
Antony Gray (piano)
rec. 31 July-1 August 2006, Wathen Hall, St Paul’s School, Barnes, London. DDD
ABC CLASSICS 4756191 [76.56]


Experience Classicsonline

John Carmichael was born in Melbourne and studied piano with Raymond Lambert and composition with Dorian Le Gallienne at the University Conservatorium. In Paris he worked with Marcel Ciampi. Contact with Arthur Benjamin led to a period of mentoring with him in London and after that composition studies with Anthony Milner.

Carmichael was a pioneer of music therapy working at the famous Stoke Mandeville and Netherden Mental hospitals. His time as Music Director of the Spanish dance company Eduardo Y Navarra and flamenco left us with the Concierto Folklórico. In 1980 James Galway premiered Carmichael's Phoenix, a flute concerto, at the Sydney Opera House. His Trumpet Concerto and Clarinet Concerto have been recorded by ASV and Dutton respectively. There is also an ABC disc of his chamber music including the Piano Quartet which gives the CD its title: Sea Changes. His most recent work is On the Green, for wind ensemble. This was first aired in London in September 2007. It celebrates “the green spaces of West London where the composer has lived for the last 40 years; it highlights the events which take place in these areas open to all to enjoy - open air music, fun fairs, children's games and care-free summer's days.”.

We now turn to the disc in hand. 

When John Carmichael calls a suite of four short pieces Bravura Waltzes he is not joking. They really are bravura. The Nostalgic has a ‘grandissime’ manner which recalls Medtner at his most rarely outgoing and his most touching. The Capricious is more feminine, mood-volatile and touching, with cross-currents from the Chopin Ballades. The Demonic rejoices at first in secret smiles rather than explosive coruscation but as it progresses (2:02) there are those landslides of notes we have might expected. Continuing the Russian immersion the Finale blazes its romantic trail with injections of fantasy from Ravel alongside the glories of the Russian keyboard. 

Spider Song is more understated: gently accessible and bejewelled with a pearly tapestry to suggest the spider's ceaseless industry. 

The Sonatine is in three movements one of which began life as a contribution to Malcolm Williamson's 70th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall. There is an On a May Morning tenderness about this work with suggestions of John Ireland. After all Carmichael has spent most of his mature life as a UK resident. The finale is more redolent of Prokofiev and Suggestion Diabolique than Ireland although there may be something of Equinox about it and of his own impressive Bravura Waltzes. 

The Bagatelle is pleasing and is his first published competition written in the year that saw the death of his teacher Arthur Benjamin. 

The Latin-American Suite is bound to prompt recollections of the much later solo piano music of Lionel Sainsbury. It will be recalled that Carmichael wrote a Concierto Folklorico (piano and orchestra) and recorded it himself for ABC. The first of the three movements is a rumba and yes there are shards of the famous Arthur Benjamin work. Nevertheless this remains fresh and full of lively glinting fire and lights. After a seductive Habanera with deep dark waters comes the galloping Joropo which  is redolent of Milhaud. 

The early Damon Suite is unassuming, tonal-lyrical - that's a given with Carmichael - and easy on the ear without being bland. The Finzi-into-Rachmaninov Shadow Waltz is memorable for its grace and emotional range. 

The Gestörter Traum is in the manner of Liszt. It was written for Liszt specialist Leslie Howard. 

The four Hommages to twentieth century ikonic composers chart sympathetic territory for Gray. The de Falla suggests rather than parodies its object of passion. The Poulenc is a smiling essay which apes the manner but does so irresistibly. The Fauré is placid and aristocratic with some explosions of charging energy recalling the outer movements of the Piano Quartet No. 1. The Ravel again strikes the manner to a tee with the resource drawn on being the Rapsodie espagnole - again the suggestion not the explicit statement. These are works that register as liberation rather than in stifling thrall to the subject composer's music. So richly detailed are they that they struck me that one day Carmichael might be tempted to orchestrate them. They might very well work superbly in that format as they also do for solo piano. The Ravel Hommage is a fantastic triumph of the imagination and adroitly drawn duende. 

The four movement suite From the Dark Side has a Secret Ceremony movement which must set us thinking, by title allusion, of Arthur Machen and John Ireland. Then  comes Before Nightfall - a sense of obsession and undertow can be sensed here. The Elegy chimes slowly, recalling graves surrounded by cowled stone-watchers - sad in effect but beautiful in humanity's approximation to eternity. The final section is Dance with the Devil - 'lustful, malicious and threatening', says the composer. 

The sound conjured by the always sensitive and challenging Antony Gray is lifelike and commanding. Gray has already given us unique ABC piano solo collections of Goossens and Williamson which complement Ian Munro’s fine Arthur Benjamin piano recitals on Tall Poppies: vol. 1; vol. 2. I do hope that Gray will one day record the Phantasy Piano Concertos by Goossens and Frank Hutchens with Benjamin’s Concerto Quasi Una Fantasia. 

Meantime this is a disc with an identity and a fascinating spell of its own. It would be impossible not to enjoy and to be stimulated by this music and by this playing.

Rob Barnett




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