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Blue Silence - Australian music for cello and piano
Elena KATS-CHERNIN (b.1957)
Blue Silence (2006) [8:53]
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
Scandinavian Suite (1902) [16:18]
Don BANKS (1923-1980)
Three Studies for Violoncello and Piano (1954) [6:42]
Alicia GRANT (b.1978)
Night Spell (2006) [5:59]
Martin WESLEY-SMITH (b.1945)
Morning Star Lament (2010) [9:39]
Ian FARR (1941-2006)
Sonata for cello and piano (1969) [9:49]
Ian MUNRO (b.1963)
Lucy Sleeps (1992) [3:55]
Matthew HINDSON (b.1968)
Jungle Fever (1998) [7:55]
David Pereira (cello); Timothy Young (piano)
rec. February 2011, Llewellyn Hall, School of Music, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
TALL POPPIES TP222 [70:09]

Experience Classicsonline


This has proved to be a greatly enjoyable introduction to a wide range of music for cello and piano by contemporary Australian composers. The one exception to that contemporary epithet is the inclusion of Percy Grainger’s 1902 Scandinavian Suite. Much as I enjoy Grainger, and given the work’s relative rarity it is a pleasure to hear but under the overall umbrella of ‘modern’ - albeit accessible - music it sits a fraction out of place.
 
All of the music here shows the composers to be individual, interesting and able to write music both attractive and of substance. For want of a better collective term - putting the Grainger to one side for the moment - this should be termed post-modernist in that for any contemporary compositional devices used these pieces are essentially tonal and direct in their emotional appeal. Interestingly the earliest work - Don Banks’ Three Studies is also the most self-consciously ‘modern’ indeed serial in its approach. Elena Kats-Chernin’s Blue Silence opens the disc, gives it its title and in many ways defines what is to come both musically, in performance terms and technically. All the works benefit from an English-only liner which includes a composer biography and photograph and a brief description of the work from the composer where possible. So we learn Kats-Chernin wrote her work for her son and other schizophrenia sufferers. She explains that such people yearn for silence and a state of meditative calm and that blue is a colour often associated with healing. This is a touchingly simple but not simplistic work - there are two basic musical building blocks; a rocking melodic figuration and a four chord sequence. In essence the work gently states, combines and recombines these elements over its eight minute course. The emotional landscape remains essentially gentle as suits its meditative mood. The work opens with the piano alone stating all of the musical material. Here and throughout the disc pianist Timothy Young proves to be an exceptionally fine player with a wide range of tone and keyboard colour whether chiming Kats-Chernin’s bell-like chords or Grainger’s furious fistfuls of notes. The entry of David Pereira’s wistful cello does raise an immediate query that persists throughout - Young’s piano sounds like the dominant partner both musically and as technically balanced by the production team. Given the nature of the opening work that is not an issue but elsewhere and certainly in the Grainger suite Pereira’s cello is subsumed in the storm of the piano writing.
 
David Pereira is a fine player and a champion of Australian string music. It is a pleasure to hear a player willing to produce a genuinely quiet sound but my only concern it that here the dynamic is too often allied to a thinning of the tone as well. This works well in the afore-mentioned Blue Silence and indeed later in the hypnotic Night Spell but seems less appropriate in the hale and hearty Grainger. The uncredited note writer mentions the difficulty of the work as one reason for its neglect. Certainly there are passages of cruelly demanding double-stopping, in the third movement Norwegian Polka especially that taxes Pereira. This is the only work on the CD for which I have comparable versions; from cellists Joel Moerschel on Northeastern records and Stephen Orton as part of Vol.13 of the Chandos Grainger Edition. It has to be said that both of those other cellists make a better fist of the Grainger than Pereira although I do prefer Young’s piano contribution which captures the forthright and muscular open-ness of Grainger’s writing to perfection. Don Banks’ Three Studies were his first completely 12-tone compositions written after an extended period of study with Luigi Dallapiccola, Milton Babbitt and Matyas Seiber. After the open-air directness of the Grainger these make for a striking contrast - it was a good programming choice to juxtapose them directly. For all the rigour and care in construction I find it hard to respond to music so clearly of the head rather than heart but they receive a palpably committed performance. Alicia Grant’s Night Spell and Ian Munro’s Lucy Sleeps in some way come together to form an - unrelated - triptych of miniatures together with the title work which inhabit a similar emotional landscape of hypnotic meditation and repose. Likewise skill in the programming links the Banks to Ian Farr’s Sonata. This is the other earlier/contemporary work dating from 1969 and again follows the aesthetic of contemporary music of the time which seems to equate this style of composition with seriousness of intent. A by-product of listening to this disc has been the crystallising of the idea that recent contemporary composers - regardless of their compositional techniques employed - seem more at ease with embracing overtly emotional external subjects.
 
Certainly that is the case with all the music presented here where the extra-musical stimuli evoke strongly felt emotions even when expressed in a ‘contained’ manner. Composer Martin Wesley-Smith clearly feels the plight of the oppressed peoples of West Papua and expresses his solidarity in Morning Star Lament. He describes the work as; “.. a lament for those who have died resisting the occupation, for those who are prisoners in their own country, for the destruction of their environment, for the brutality of the occupiers, for the hypocrisy of the West…”. Strong stuff. As is my wont, I listened to this disc the first time with no reference to the liner. With music I do not know it ensures no preconceptions or expectations. In the case of this Lament it also provided considerable confusion. In purely musical terms there is an extraordinarily wide range of styles and moods encompassed in the nine minutes of the work. This includes ‘serious’ contemporary clusters, brilliant be-bop like syncopating passages, a curiously impressive vocalise where one of the players, uncredited, accompanies themselves (the other?) singing a plaintive wordless melody. At first listen, it was the presence of a simple, almost saccharine melody richly harmonised in the best traditions of the tea-shop that frames the work that confused me. It turns out this melody, “O My Country Papua” was written in the 1930s and became the colony’s official anthem and at much the same time the Morning Star flag became its official flag. When Indonesia took over the country in 1963 both were banned. Certainly, knowing that cranks up the emotional temperature of the work several notches and ‘explains’ much of the music’s thrust in an instant. It does leave the listener with the eternal debate; should music need its context to be explained before you can evenly partially understand it. As it happens this was one of my favourite pieces on the disc even before I read the explanation - I enjoyed the diversity of styles it embraces and again it benefits from a very powerful performance. What one cannot divine from the superficial knowledge of a work afforded by this kind of review is whether/how the musical material of the anthem is transformed or developed in the main body of the work.
 
Perhaps worth mentioning here that five of the eight works presented here are getting their world premiere recordings. The disc closes with another of those five; Matthew Hindson’s Jungle Fever. I must admit that the presence of this work was my main reason for requesting it to review. I find Hindson to be one of the most interesting and convincing composers wrestling with the challenge of making true contemporary music relevant for an audience brought up listening to non-classical music. He does these by embracing elements of popular music; fantastic propulsive rhythms, memorable melodies and riffs but without ‘selling out’ by writing classical-pop or vapid pastiche. It’s a delicate balance but one he manages to achieve. This piece contains all of Hindson’s most typical and best gestures - big theatrical moments, nagging rock-derived ostinati and melodic cells of ear-worm memorability. Its another piece that might benefit from a richer, fuller cello tone but the athleticism and conviction of the playing is never in doubt.
 
Overall, this disc is an excellent sampler of the rich diversity and range of contemporary cello music being written by Australian composers. All credit to performers Pereira and Young for devoting the considerable amount of time and energy it must have taken to bring this amount of unfamiliar yet impressive music to the studio. A worthwhile project skilfully executed.
 
Nick Barnard
 

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