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Douglas LILBURN (1915-2001)
Chamber Works
String Quartet in E minor (1946) [17.14]
Duos for 2 Violins (1954) [19.23]
String Trio (1945) [16.35]
Canzonettas for Violin and Viola (1942/43/58) [8.46]
Phantasy for String Quartet (1939) [10.43]
New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl (violin 1), Douglas Beilman (violin 2), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (cello))
rec. St. Anne’s Church, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 26-28 July 2012
NAXOS 8.573079 [72.49]

2 November 2015 will mark the exact centenary date of the birth of New Zealand’s best known composer, Douglas Lilburn. Perhaps, like me, you thought of him mainly as a composer of orchestral works. I think especially of the three Symphonies which I purchased twenty years ago on the Continuum label (CCD1069) but which Naxos have also recorded (8.555862). Then again there are orchestral works like A Song of Islands and the overture Aotearoa (Naxos 8.557697, Kiwi Pacific CD-SLD-99 and Continuum CCD1076). I have even seen and played some of the piano music (review), which my friend Margaret Lyon was performing back in the 1990s but never the chamber music.

I have heard Douglas Lilburn’s symphonies described as being like an ‘Antipodean Sibelius’ and even with the early String Quartet in E minor, which opens the programme, there is a sense of Nordic spaciousness. That out-of-doors feel is encapsulated in the sonata-form first movement, which the annotator Robert Hoskins writes quite romantically about concerning the motion of a gliding hawk. I can’t see that myself but the inner movement is certainly a “folk-dance” with its animated rhythms, The expansive finale even had moments to remind me of Nielsen. A rhapsodic work then and one that is definitely worth getting to know.

Composing Duos for two violins or any duos for that matter is not only a test of a composer’s technique but also of their imagination. To write a set of six which are not only personal and original but have something deeper to say is a considerable achievement. True, as Hoskins says, there are influences, Bartók in No. 4, Copland in No. 2 which is a sort of hoe-down but most interesting is the composer’s own recollections of an idyllic childhood amidst the natural landscape of the remote hill country of New Zealand’s north island. He could sit in the trees “and sing a wordless song” to the heavens. It’s no surprise then that this music sings, especially the more reflective numbers 3 and 5. I wonder what his teacher at the Royal College, who was no less than RVW, made of it. The clever use of modality and the free-wheeling rhythms certainly would have appealed.

By the age of thirty Lilburn was still looking for a decisive language of his own and in the String Trio he practically finds it through an unexpected source - Franz Schubert whose piano music had much affected him several years before. The influence is not obvious but scratch the surface and you can discern a strong leaning towards another wide-ranging, singing melody. This is evident especially in the middle movement, marked Allegretto. There is much rhythmic repetition to create development and those shimmering opening textures. Yet that airy, breezy elegance of the orchestral works is also audible.

The Canzonettas for Violin and Viola are charming miniatures and partially written originally as incidental music for a production of Hamlet. The booklet notes describe them therefore as quasi-Elizabethan. They are modal certainly and have simple, direct melodies but not echt-Morley. In fact the third one is melancholic and harmonically quite searching.

The last work on this disc is the earliest. The Phantasy form was revived in the 1930s due to the popular Cobbett Prize. This attracted many entries from established figures and also from young up and coming composers. Lilburn was just a student but he came up with the idea of basing his Phantasy for String Quartet on the beautiful Tudor melody ‘Westron Winde’ or ‘Western Wind when will you blow’. This tune is also used as the basis for masses by Tye, Taverner and others. Tempo-wise it falls into a neatly contrasted slow-fast-slow-fast-slow category but it is an appropriately melancholic piece. It was first performed by students at the Royal College and is well worth its place in the repertoire.

I should also mention that there is a full price Atoll CD which includes three of the Lilburn works recorded on this disc. This has been reviewed by Steve Arloff.

This is an attractive disc which throws further light onto a really interesting and significant figure of twentieth century music but one who has still to emerge from the shadows. Not to be overlooked.

Gary Higginson
Previous review: Nick Barnard