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Recordings of the Month


From Ocean’s Floor


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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Peter SCULTHORPE (1929-2014)
Complete String Quartets with Didjeridu
Quartet No. 12 From Ubirr (1994/2001)[12.22]
Quartet No. 14 Quamby (1998/2000/2004) [19.55]
Quartet No. 16 (2005, revised 2006) [23.45]
Quartet No. 18 (2010) [26.08]
Blu-Ray of all four quartets
Stephen Kent (Didjeridu)
De Sol Quartet
rec. 24-25 June 2013, 21-22 April 2014, Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia
SONO LUMINUS DSL92181 [32:19 + 49:53 + BD-A: 82.11]

Peter Sculthorpe, who died aged 85 in August 2014, left behind an original and extraordinary musical legacy. As soon as you hear his work you instantly recognise him. He also had a way of reusing his older music to discover something fresh and point it in a new direction.

Sculthorpe’s concern for the indigenous people of Australia is reflected in much of his output but especially in works like his Requiem, Earth Cry and in these four quartets. The single-movement 12th String Quartet has a typically complex history. Originally the string-only version from 1994 was itself based on the aforementioned Earth Cry composed in 1986 for orchestra. In 2001 he reorganised the work again adding a Didjeridu. This most effectively contributes to the depths of the bass line and adds a sort of ‘keening’ to the already dark opening. The work builds to an aggressive climax using en route a melody of Sculthorpe’s from 1974, originally a vocal setting of aboriginal words, imitating indigenous chanting. Ubirr incidentally is a barren area in the Northern Territory where aboriginals are forced to live.

I first encountered the 14th String Quartet when I purchased the superb recording by the Goldner Quartet on Tall Poppies (TP206) in Sydney three years ago: the start of that series reviewed here. I listened to it regularly whilst on the interminable drive north to Brisbane and it really captured my imagination. Again, it has a complex background. The Goldners recorded the 1998 version in its revised form made in 2000. Later that year Sculthorpe orchestrated it under the title Quamby. In 2004 it was recomposed adding the Didjeridu. The effect is partially to lengthen the work, secondly to add a sort of animalistic clamour especially in the first movement and at the end of the work when some primitive forest creature cries across the landscape. I remember such frightening sounds, particularly of the calling Kookaburra in the dead of night whilst in the outback. Sculthorpe is a composer of landscape music par excellence. The third movement subtitled On High Hills has his trademark birdcalls, this time seagulls. The work was inspired by his boyhood memories in Tasmania and by an atrocity in which, the legend says, several indigenous people were herded over a precipice to their deaths crying ‘Quamby’- ‘Save me’. The spot is now called ‘Quamby Rock’ and the last movement is entitled ‘Quamby Bluff’ which includes a melody dating back to an earlier orchestral work My Country Childhood (1999). There is also an autobiography by the composer with the same title.

On the same CD the Goldners also present the String Quartet No 16 in its original version of 2005. What the listener must understand is that Sculthorpe does not set out to describe landscape but to communicate his emotional reaction to his immediate surroundings. This is demonstrated particularly in this work. If the aboriginal can be considered an outsider in Australian society then so can Australian immigrants, mostly from Asia, including thousands from Afghanistan.

Movements 1, 3 and 5 are based on the same Afghan love-song. The original quartet starts with this haunting melody but this version begins with the Didjeridu and birdcalls, that hallmark sound we have come to know. The movement is titled ‘Loneliness’ and the whole work, and this melody in particular, is inspired by a book of writings by asylum-seekers called ‘Nothing to Zero’ which explores their solitude and isolation. This leads the composer to ‘Anger’– the title of movement two, a harsh and rhythmic sound-world, which is further explored in ‘Trauma’ a result of isolation, which is the title of movement four. This is music of considerable dissonance and pain. With the slow middle section ‘Yearning’ and with the relief of the finale ‘Freedom’ — the birds are free but not the humans — marked Estatico, the emotional roller-coaster is completed.

The String quartet No. 18 extends to six movements. What Sculthorpe achieved by introducing the Didjeridu into these works is to internalise the instrument, its use is subtle but telling. He knows that it cannot be fully integrated so sometimes he adds moments at the start and end of movements or uses it at strongly emotional climactic points or to add strength to the bass. This amplification happens especially at the start of this quartet and in the last movement. No. 18 is Sculthorpe’s last essay in the form although the original version of this work is the 12th Quartet. In this final work he addresses the problem of the fragility of the planet, and climate-change as its affects Australia in particular. The fourth movement, which is the longest, is subtitled ‘A Lost Land’. It avoids bird-calls, which had begun the previous movement (Dying Lands) and the Didjeridu which by now one has come to realise represents the indigenous people. Movement two uses a song from the Kimberley region of Northern Australia but there is hope and optimism. This can be heard in the finale in which we hear ‘O God our help in ages past’ acting as a release and comfort. It finishes with the bottom C which “always represents God, the God of all religious belief” (the words of the composer).

It was a meeting with aboriginal Didjeridu player, William Barton that inspired Sculthorpe to use the instrument. It's a pity that he was not used for this recording. Talking of which it's also odd that the Del Sol Quartet, who are quite superb and totally sympathetic to the demands of the music, are American. The equally superb Stephen Kent is English. Were no Australians at hand to play their countryman’s works?

There are three discs in the cardboard folding case. The 12th and 14th Quartets on CD 1 and the other two on CD 2. There is a Blu-Ray disc which contains all four works. The labelling on the back of the case is a little ambiguous and confusing.

The booklet notes by Graeme Skinner are detailed in the best sense and there are copious black and white photos. Altogether this is a fascinating release and opens out a unique and evocative sound-world.

Gary Higginson