The works on this disc are unified by Smalley’s use of fragments
of material from earlier works by composers, such as Chopin. This
is a style that Smalley has developed since emigrating to Australia in the 1970s
and the results are both fascinating and highly successful.
The Piano Quintet is an enjoyable work with
a subtle fusion of quotations from Chopin’s F minor Mazurka
with Smalley’s contemporary style. The music has a bright, fresh
feel and an energetic opening, with an almost Reichian string
quartet part heard against an angular piano line. The two central
movements are a short intermezzo, which uses short fragments
of melody and rhythm, and a light scherzo. The final movement
is the longest of the four, and comes in the form of a Chaconne
with variations. The chord progression comes from Chopin,
and each of the variations is based on a musical style in which
Chopin composed. Viewed as a compositional exercise, this demonstrates
the craftsmanship of Roger Smalley – the quotes feel natural
and unforced, and he moves seamlessly from his own language
into Chopin’s. The playing is of a high standard, with the composer
giving a strong performance at the piano and the Australian
String Quartet communicating Smalley’s music very well.
The central work on the disc is the perhaps unusual
Trio for horn, violin and piano. This is potentially
a problematic instrumental combination, as one would expect
the horn to obliterate the violin, but Smalley’s scoring is
meticulous and any balance problems are carefully handled. The
different tone colours of the instruments
are offset against each other well, with the warm, rounded sound
of the horn contrasting against Smalley’s biting and at times
edgy violin writing. The piano serves to unify the ensemble
and secure a blend between the two other instruments. The opening
of the Mirror Variations is particularly haunting, with
a horn solo giving way to the piano. The quoted material used
in this piece comes from Smalley’s own work, and this is the
music heard on the horn at the beginning of this central movement.
This is another well crafted piece which has a strong sense
of Smalley as an academic composer, meant in the best possible
way, whereby the music is given intelligent consideration during
the compositional process in order to ensure a convincing artistic
result. The playing is consistently excellent, with Darryl Poulsen
providing some beautifully phrased horn playing.
The final work on this disc is Smalley’s Second
String Quartet, which was commissioned in 1999 by the Australian
String Quartet, who perform it here. Again using Chopin’s material
as a basis, this single movement work of nearly 20 minute’s
duration uses music from the Op. 56 No. 3 Mazurka in C minor.
The harmonic language blends well with Smalley’s own and moments
of tonality help to guide the ear through the work. This is
another excellent performance from the Australian String Quartet,
who make light work of the complex changes of mood and textures
to bring the work’s sense of unity of style to the audience.
This is a highly enjoyable work in which Smalley uses elements
of the old and the new to create something entirely his own.
The music is lyrical and expressive, well recorded and beautifully
played. Well worth exploring.
see also Review
by Rob Barnett