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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Agony and Ecstasy - Australian Music from the time of Arthur Boyd
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
Spoon River (1919) [4:11]
Miriam HYDE (1913-2005)
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat minor - II. Lento (1933) [9:54]
Alfred HILL (1869-1960)
Symphony No.2 'Joy of Life' - I. Grave-allegro (1941) [9:12]
John ANTILL (1904-1986)
Corroboree - III. Rain Dance (1946) [3:09]
Peggy GLANVILLE-HICKS (1912-1990)
Gymnopédie No.1 [4:04]
Peter SCULTHORPE (1929-2014)
Irkanda IV (1961) [11:16]
Malcolm WILLIAMSON (1931-2003)
Sinfonietta - II. Elegy (1965) [6:31]
David LUMSDAINE (b.1931)
Shoalhaven [12:05]
Ross EDWARDS (b.1943)
Arafura Dances - Concerto for Guitar and Strings - III. Second Maninya [5:16]
Carl VINE (b.1954)
Celebrare celeberrime - a celebration for orchestra (1979) [5:06]
Richard MEALE (1932-2009)
Lumen (1998) [6:57]
rec. no recording information provided
ABC CLASSICS 4811210 [78:54]

The rather melodramatic title of this CD links it to an exhibition in Australia of the works of the artist Arthur Boyd. Boyd lived from 1920 to 1999 so the music is rather neatly presented in chronological order and as such can be listened to as a survey of a certain aspect Australian music through the twentieth century.  ABC Classics released a compilation of similar works in 2004 (see review).

Documentation is sparse with no recording information regarding year or location. The performing artists are listed. A brief search online reveals that many of the performances here have been taken from ABC's 'Australian Composer Series' discs which were usually single composer overviews. Outside Australia these discs are fairly hard to come by and when they can be found they are often rather expensive. All of which inhibits the dissemination of this fine music to a worldwide audience. That being said quite a few of these same single composer collections are available as downloads from e-classical ranging from approximately £3-£6 per 'disc'. Recording quality is very variable from the outright poor through to good although none could be termed demonstration quality. The disc opens with the obligatory Percy Grainger - although not one of his most well-known pieces. Spoon River is based on fiddle tune from Illinois but it is very much in the spirit of his other Irish-inspired works such as Molly on the Shore. The performance is neat and alert with the quirks of Grainger's scoring coming through including the harmonium. Recording quality is acceptable with quite a lot of background hiss and not as much clarity or depth as the finest recordings possess.

An average recording inhibits the impact of the Miriam Hyde slow movement from her first piano concerto (review; review). The particular interest lies in the fact that Hyde is also the soloist. This is where no recording information is frustrating. Hyde was born in 1913 so one wonders at her age when this performance was recorded. She was just twenty years old and a student in London when the work was produced. By that standard it is pretty impressive although rather derivative in a neo-romantic fashion - Rachmaninov out of John Ireland sprung to mind. The recording does the solo instrument few favours - rather harsh and clangorous. Also, the inclusion of only the second movement is the fatal flaw of such compilations as this, but certainly there is enough of interest in this excerpt to make one wish to hear the remainder of the work. The opening movement only of Alfred Hill's Second Symphony is next (review of related work). My reaction to this is much the same as all the limited amount of Hill I know - the title's of the works are more interesting than the music itself. Remarkably this work was written in 1941 but would be more at ease some fifty years earlier. It is perfectly pleasant music but without the individuality to linger in the memory. The recording is one of the worst in the set - indeed it sounds as if there was some mastering flaw - on the disc I have, this track alone suffers from a rather strange phasing sound that distorts the music from the very first bars. Which is a shame since the South Australian Symphony Orchestra under Patrick Thomas give a spirited performance. The more I hear it, it does sound bizarrely like latter-day Raff which for 1941 must be one of the most 'outside-of-the zeitgeist' works ever.

The excerpt from Antill's Corroboree is listed as 'historic mono recording' (review). Apparently it is from 1950 but I have heard recordings made a quarter of a century earlier that sound better. Here the scale and detail of Antill's substantial score are all but obscured in a swishing audio haze allowing almost no real appreciation at all of this important work. Liner-note writer Natalie Shea rather primly warns us that the work "may raise uncomfortable questions about cultural respect and authenticity" which is simply foolish. By that token, any piece of music that sourced material from folk or ethnic backgrounds is to be dismissed. Percy Grainger better take care - why did Shea not raise the same concerns regarding his 'cavalier' treatment of the music from Illinois?

After a run of some rather disappointing selections Peggy Glanville-Hicks' Gymnopédie No.1 is an attractive little gem. Very much in the spirit of the Satie works which I assume were a source of inspiration. This is the first of a group of three and it would be fascinating to hear them as a sequence (review) but it stands alone satisfactorily in a way that not all of the works presented here do. The scoring for strings, harp and oboe gives the work a gently melancholy pastoral atmosphere - the scoring is lucid and effective. Certainly enough to have me seeking out the companion works.

Another powerful work - written as a musical expression of the composer's feelings on the death of his father is Peter Sculthorpe's Irkanda IV. Essentially a slow lamenting movement for solo violin, strings and percussion this is an austerely impressive work compellingly played by violinist Donald Hazelwood and conductor Stuart Challender. Again, a fuller recording would have paid dividends - I see this is a work recorded on Chandos by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. I have not heard that performance but I am guessing it benefits from a more sympathetic recording technically. Malcolm Williamson seems to be on the verge of a revival/reassessment. Here we are given the second movement Elegy from his 1965 Sinfonietta. Shea's curious liner states; "it was ... written for the launch of the final stage of the BBC's Music Program [sic]". she further states the commission required the piece to be "extravert" [sic]. I've no idea what any of that means. The piece itself is very fine and this excerpt certainly encourages me to hear more - it appears on Vol. 1 of the Chandos Williamson edition - will that ever get beyond Volume 2 I wonder? The structure of the movement is quite simple with a hypnotic slowly circling motif from wind and strings in contrast to a rhythmic section led by the brass. The closing part of the movement combines these seemingly unrelated elements in different orchestrations. The playing of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra is very good with the brass in particular relishing their clashing chordal writing.

The following three works are more consciously light-hearted but all are well written and strikingly individual. David Lumsdaine's Shoalhaven is rather unusual in that it opens with four or so minutes of what might be called nature-painting; a rather epic soundscape that has echoes of a kind of Coplandesque 'open plains' character which suddenly and very unexpectedly morphs into an extended blues for full orchestra. The liner explains that this is the composer's tribute to his friend Don Banks who composed in a jazz as well as contemporary/classical idiom. This section disappears into the distance and the music returns to the landscape of the opening. It makes for an odd juxtaposition and one that I am not wholly convinced works but it is played with great gusto. The closing movement of Ross Edwards' Concerto for Guitar and Strings follows. This is lighter-hearted than other Edwards I have heard; a Malcolm Arnold out of Rodrigo feel to the music. Edwards gives the section the title Maninya - a description he has pretty much made his own and combines elements of indigenous Australian music with dance and chant. In the incarnation it has here the music is lightly textured and buoyantly rhythmic - characteristics well projected by guitarist Karin Schaupp and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra once more (review). Carl Vine's Celebrare celeberrime completes this mini-triptych of more upbeat works (review). Vine seems to share in this work at least a similar aesthetic to Michael Daugherty where he fuses elements of classical music with the spirit and energy of popular culture. There is a cinematic quality to Vine's writing that is undoubtedly exciting. Propulsive rhythms and powerful orchestration makes this an excellent five minute display piece for orchestra. Certainly the Sydney Symphony Orchestra play it with enormous energy and skill. Unfortunately the recording is too opaque for the work with the resonance clouding much of the inner detail with the result being simply noisy rather than uplifting. However, enough of the work's quality shines through to know that in more skilfully engineered performances this would be a superb concert-opener or orchestral show-piece - I see the Australian Youth Orchestra used it to open their debut concert at the 2004 BBC Proms.

This well-filled programme ends with Richard Meale's contemplative Lumen. This is an impressive work too and one that brings the disc to a satisfyingly reflective conclusion. I have no knowledge of any other work by Meale - according to online sources he is "Australia's neglected grandmaster" which is enough of a reference to make me wish to hear more. The same reviewer - Chris Latham - refers to Lumen as a work in which "in which all subject matter seems to fall away to be replaced by waves of pure sound, embodying another famous Basho haiku “the temple bells stops, but the sound keeps coming out of the flowers”." Certainly there is a simple timelessness about the work that is both meditative and rather moving. My only grouch is another rather unsubtle recording which undermines the fine advocacy of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and renders the work surely less atmospheric than it is meant to be.

As a survey of Australian music this is certainly stimulating and interesting albeit compromised by the average recording quality. The composers selected - with the exception of Alfred Hill - have strongly individual voices. There is a lack of contemporary music which does not fall into the easily assimilated post-modern idiom. Perhaps that is because the works chosen resonate better with the art of Arthur Boyd. As an introduction to the richness and diversity of twentieth century Australian music this is a valuable survey.

Nick Barnard

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/John Hopkins (Grainger)
Miriam Hyde (piano), The West Australian Symphony Orchestra/Geoffrey Simon (Hyde)
South Australian Symphony Orchestra/Patrick Thomas (Thomas)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra/Eugene Goossens (Antill)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra/Myer Fredman (Antill)
Donald Hazelwood (violin), Sydney Symphony Orchestra/Stuart Challender (Sculthorpe)
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Richard Mills (Williamson)
West Australian Symphony Orchestra/Albert Rosen (Lumsdaine)
Karin Schaupp (guitar), Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Richard Mills (Edwards)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra/Edo de Waart (Meale)



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