db, for flute, clarinet, piano and cello (1991) [15:28]
Merry-Go-Round, for clarinet, cello and CD (2002) [15:27]
Snark-Hunting, for flute, percussion, piano, cello and CD (1984)
Oom Pah Pah, for flute and piano (1996) [8:17]
fin/début, for flute, clarinet, piano and string quartet
Australia Ensemble (Dene Olding, Dimity Hall (violins), Irina Morozova
(viola), Julian Smiles (cello), Ian Munro (piano), Geoffrey Collins
(flute), Catherine McCorkill (clarinet)); Timothy Constable (percussion)
rec. John Clancy Auditorium, UNSW October 2002; Dec 2005. DDD.
TALL POPPIES TP200 [71:18]
The Australian composer Martin Wesley-Smith has an individual style and a strong feeling for chamber music. In the works on the present disc he creates thick textures, rich in motifs and harmonies. Every measure is filled with events, and the entire program is a huge sparkling kaleidoscope.
The first piece, db, is dedicated to Wesley-Smith’s friend and colleague, the late Australian composer Don Banks. It incorporates some of Banks’ themes. The first movement goes from exotic expressionistic arabesques to something like a jolly circus polka, which turns into a waltz and back. In fact, everything is transforming into something else, as the music is very metamorphic. There are visitors too - ranging from jazz to sweet evening romance. The second movement opens with a minimalistic dissection of harmony, but soon the “kaleidoscope” mode is back on. The composer is at play with minimalism, just as he is playing with other techniques and styles. Different motifs try to weave themselves into the minimalistic canvas, some of them strong enough to grab centre-stage for a while. From the first note of db to its last, the music is smiling. The effect exactly parallels those moments when you hear somebody sing and can say immediately that the singer smiles or frowns.
There is no smile in Merry-Go-Round, despite the title. It has political roots and was inspired by a picture of a primitive wooden merry-go-round photographed in Afghanistan, with Afghani children riding it. The music starts with cold and misery. Oriental melodies entwine in the air, and then we hear a sad lullaby. The mechanical carousel is turned on, with its false lights and sweet promises. But the winding goes down, and we are left with the cold and the misery. An agitated, pleading episode follows, and then the sad lullaby returns. Children and war, children in a land tormented by endless conflicts; this is a painful subject, and the emotional picture cannot leave one indifferent. Technically, the music is performed by two “live” instruments - a cello and a clarinet - with a lot of percussion and synthesized sounds from an electronic device. Such solution allows the composer to combine the mechanical and the humane, the clockwork and the soul. There is no explicit suffering depicted; the music has a certain documentary feeling. I was deeply moved by it.
The ideas of Lewis Carroll had a big influence on the works of Wesley-Smith. This includes the illustrious nonsense epic “The Hunting of the Snark”. I cannot say how closely the music follows the narrative of the poem, but it definitely depicts a journey with many episodes, ending with the quiet vanishing of the hero - for the Snark was a Boojum, you see. The composer plays with some Victorian nursery songs, setting them backwards or upside down, just as Lewis Carroll did with music-box rolls. Each episode is like a scene in a computer game, with different machinery. There is a significant electronic component here too - oh, that scary Jubjub bird! - although now the percussion is “live”. The piece is long, and I had some difficulty concentrating over its entire length. Then again, I have the same problem with the poem - go figure!
Oom Pah Pah for piano and flute could be a soundtrack to a cartoon, not necessarily one for kids. The cartoon is drawn - or even sketched - in plain lines. Its hero is a simple, sympathetic little fellow, who starts his day in a carefree, happy mood. The whole world is his friend. Then he gets into some awkward and unpleasant situations, possibly as a result of his candidness. All ends well - or was it a question mark we heard? I am sure the composer had nothing of this in mind when he wrote the music - but that’s the impression I invariably get from it. Here again, as in db, I hear the instruments smiling.
Finally we have fin/début, a multi-layered piece dedicated to the end/beginning of the century. It was written in 2000, and its two movements - actually there are three, but the third one is not recorded here - take as their starting points two other pieces written on the edge of centuries. One is Beethoven’s Septet (1800), the other is Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht (1900). The first part (spawning from the Beethoven) is all fun and merry-making. It is aptly described by the composer in the liner-note as “an exuberant romp through a garden whose live flowers consist of snippets of Carrollian nursery rhymes, and other quotes ...” We have tiny waltzes and tangos, a minimalistic Clockland, we have silly “party games” with metronomes and musicians walking on and off the stage. The piece packs a lot into its nine minutes, and never becomes boring: a colorful, exciting journey.
The other part of fin/début is entitled pp, a tribute to another composer’s colleague, Peter Platt. It is quiet and melancholic. It starts in the gloomy woods of Verklärte Nacht, with the flute spelling out the late friend’s name. Enter clarinet, and the narration changes - from indirect to direct speech. Enter piano which brings another sad lullaby, like throwing a bridge to the Merry-Go-Round piece.
The playing of the Australia Ensemble is virtuosic and committed. Even the thickest textures are transparent, the counterpoint is well laid out, and the numerous sonic effects are effortless and natural. I want to praise especially the glorious clarinet playing of Catherine McCorkill, although other members of the ensemble are highly professional too. The recording is not very deep, alas - this music would benefit from a more spacious presentation. However, the balance is excellent, which is especially important in the two pieces that incorporate a CD. Very informative liner notes help a lot in understanding the pieces.
I cannot say that I really became a big fan of Martin Wesley-Smith. And I definitely would not advise to listen to the disc in one run. The non-stop flickering of its merry lights can start to irritate. But if you love this kind of music, you will discover the colorful, inventive, bright world of one of Australia’s leading composers. It has a lot of heart; that’s for sure!
see also review by Jonathan Woolf