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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
which complement Ian Munro’s fine Arthur Benjamin piano recitals
on Tall Poppies: 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.