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Peter SCULTHORPE (1934-2014)
Complete works for solo piano
Full contents list at end of review
Tamara-Anna Cislowska (piano)
rec. 19-21, 23-24 June 2014, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Ultimo Centre, Sydney, Australia
ABC CLASSICS 481 1181 [79:21 + 79:26]

An extremely generously filled and lovingly recorded 2 CD colection. It sets out the complete solo piano music by a twentieth century Australian composer. Is this going to be difficult? No — but then again neither is it facile or faceless. In a very fully populated musical world Peter Sculthorpe, who died last month, has been bearing his own standard as well as that of his country in concert halls and radio stations across the world. Much of his intensely imaginative orchestral music has been recorded and much of it is down to ABC Classics. Until now his piano music has had little exposure.

The pianist in this case is Tamara-Anna Cislowska, a close and long-time friend of the composer who recorded Sculthorpe's piano concerto with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra at the age of 14 (review) and more recently in 2003 for Naxos. Her name may be familiar from her CDs which track widely including several from the rich tapestry that is Australian piano music of the first half of the last century. She also joined fellow Australian Geoffrey Tozer for the Chandos recording of the two piano concerto by Rawsthorne.

The gatefold sleeve of this ABC double has a pocket for a booklet that includes a substantial eight page essay by Chris Latham. This nestles the piano works in the context of Sculthorpe's life. There's also an introductory preface by the pianist.

The two discs in their three panel digipack are laid out chronologically. CD 1 covers 1945–1981. The first thirteen tracks up to the Sonatina are impressionistic and sentimental. Listen to the little convulsions and rapid rivulets of Falling Leaves and the slow and velvety Debussian romance of Nocturne. Epigram is rife with rills and rivulets - a cheeky Pierrot of a piece. The slow movement from Sonata No. 1 has a Moeran-like Irish curve to its melody. In Aboriginal Legend a heat-haze hits the listener. This is very much an essay in gently touched-in subtleties. Nocturne (Seascape) reflects a slow and unthreatening marine-swell.

The Sonatina marks a transition into greater tonal complexity. It traverses "lost in dreams" moods, a peg-leg dance and a quirky Shostakovich-style finale. The two movement Piano Sonata is freighted with darkness and troubled waters. The simple Haiku, sing-song Sea Chant and sweetly nostalgic Left Bank Waltz lead us to the five Night Pieces. These comprise a magically blended drift of dissonance and oblique asides - at times like the piano line in Warlock's chillier songs. Landscape takes the listener into avant-garde realms with deep blows on the wood of the piano, clattering impacts, huffs, rumbles and unnatural sounds conjured from the innards of the instrument. In Koto Music I and II the notes are wide-spaced and do not jostle each other. Resonances hang in the air and the intervening silences are as important as the sounds. Mountains (1981) is deeper and clothed in dissonances that again unfold without haste.

The second disc presents the piano works of 1986–2011. Djilile is shaded with minimalism. It has the impress of a child's self-hypnotised singing; there's even an Einaudi-style swell at 4:02. In Callabonna those deep bass notes and pearly pebbles well upwards as they do in Mountains. Nocturnal is an exercise in swelling profound notes with a delicate tracery of high notes resolving into misty contentment. Next comes a shock gear-change in the shape of the rather stiffly Victorian Rose Bay Quadrilles. These are Sculthorpe's editing of five stately and lively quadrilles written by one William Stanley in 1885 to mark the laying of the foundation stone of Woollahra House in Sydney. Simori is a set of five pieces based on the songs of the Simori people of Papua New Guinea. Of these Pota impresses with its phasing between placid and troubled. The six pieces of A Little Book of Hours takes us by the hand back to the Einaudi-like simplicity of Djilile but with greater emotional depth. These were written for young pianists to play. Here the composer demonstrates the artistry in modesty without bluster. Harbour Dreaming revolves around a hypnotic gentle chime that ends in stillness. Song for a Penny is sentimental and lightly jazzy - more of a caress than a bruise. Sometimes When I'm Dreaming began life as a song from the days when Sculthorpe first went to Sydney and wrote pop music for theatre revues.

The Little Passacaglia was a form of balm after the Bali bombings in 2004 when 89 people of the 202 killed were Australian citizens. It is a work of soft undulations with dark blue notes adding depth. It is of the world of A Little Book of Hours and Djilile. The five movement Riverina is Sculthorpe's largest work for solo piano. The Riverina of the title is a region of New South Wales whose principal city is Wagga Wagga. The first movement opens in a unfolding sentimental sing-song but as it progresses salty harmonies intrude. The second movement is populated with trilling bird calls, statuesque defiance and wide-spaced notes. Murrumbidgee River At Night is more intimate than I had expected from a picture of great river. Fitzmaurice Street picks up on the mix of races in that part of Wagga Wagga and its annual jazz festival. The final Thanksgiving is again melodic with no brutal shifts or crunches. The music feels healthful and good to live with. It ends with what feels like a smile before contented sleep.

Sculthorpe and his eloquent advocate pianist give voice to a composer drawn to quiet and slowly measured expression.

Rob Barnett

Track-Listing
CD 1: (1945–1981)
1. Falling Leaves (1945)
2. Nocturne (1945)
3. Short Piece No. 1 (1945)
4. Short Piece No. 2 (1946)
5. Prelude to a Puppet Show (1945)
6. Evocation (1946)
7. Epigram (1946)
8. Siesta (1946)
9. Slow movement from Sonata No. 1 (1946)
10. Aboriginal Legend – Sketch (1946)
11. Untitled (1948)
12. Nocturne (Seascape) (1948)
13. Nocturne (1949)
14-16. Sonatina (1954)
17-18. Sonata for Piano (1963)
19. Haiku (1965)
20. Sea Chant (1965)
21. Left Bank Waltz (1957-71)
22-26. Night Pieces (1971)
27. Landscape (1971)
28. Koto Music I (1973)
29. Koto Music II (1976)
30. Mountains (1981)

CD 2: (1986–2011)
1. Djilile (1986)
2. Callabonna (1989)
3. Nocturnal (1983-89)
4-8. The Rose Bay Quadrilles (1989)
9-13. Simori (1995)
14-19. A Little Book of Hours (1998)
20. Harbour Dreaming (2000)
21. Song for a Penny (2000)
22. Sometimes When I'm Dreaming (2002)
23. Little Passacaglia (2004)
24-28. Riverina (2011)