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Graeme KOEHNE (b. 1956)
Forty Reasons to be Cheerful (2013) [6:42]
The Persistence of Memory, for oboe and orchestra (2014) [9:47]
Divertissement: Trois pièces bourgeoises, for string orchestra (1983) [13:14]
Between Two Worlds, suite from the ballet 1914 (1998) [26:34]
Time is a River, for clarinet and string orchestra (2010) [16:55]
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Richard Mills
rec. 20 April 2004, TSO Rehearsal Studio; 29 July-1 Aug 2014, Federation Concert Hall, Hobart.
Booklet notes not supplied with download
ABC CLASSICS 4811480 [73:12]

In 2000, one of the concerts in my Sydney Symphony subscription featured a world premiere. This phrase produced a sense of dread, as all previous occasions had led to disappointment (and worse). The work was an oboe concerto by Graeme Koehne, whose name was known to me, but none of his works were. There seemed to be one saving grace - the soloist was the SSO’s principal oboe and one of its stars, Diana Doherty - but against that was I knew that she had a taste for modernist works. I was somewhat reassured by the program notes which indicated that Koehne’s musical ethos was underpinned by film scores, and above all, “entertainment”. As it turned out, the performance of Inflight Entertainment was, and remains, one of the highlights of my concert-going life. It has been recorded by Naxos with Diana Doherty and the SSO, together with three of his earlier orchestral works (review). The slow movement, Horse Opera, is so gloriously rapturous, it has gained a life of its own as a standalone piece, Way Out West.

There is a school of thought which seems to suggest that contemporary classical music must be difficult to be considered serious and proper. If it dares to have a melody, then it is second-class, fit only for musical or film. You will not be surprised that I don’t subscribe to this idea, finding it elitist and destructive. Koehne’s music is unashamedly approachable, tonal and melodic, but is not dumbed down or simplistic, and definitely not second-class. It is beautifully crafted, engaging and stylish.

Needless to say, when I saw this release, I grabbed it, and have to admit to not being patient enough to wait the two weeks or so for a CD to arrive, thus giving up the booklet notes, disgracefully not supplied with the download, for the immediate gratification of listening to the music.

Forty Reasons to be Cheerful was commissioned to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the opening of the Adelaide Festival Centre, hence the title. Its sub-title – Festival Fanfare – gives the game away. Joyously upbeat, Copland-esque brass and woodwind, strings pizzicato at first in support of the snare drum, building to a climax midway, followed by a more introspective section, leading into the final celebratory surge.

The Persistence of Memory was written in remembrance of Guy Henderson, who was Diana Doherty’s predecessor at the SSO for thirty-one years, and premiered by the Tasmanian SO in 2014. While this is more elegiac than Horse Opera, as befits the reasons for its composition, there are moments of similar rapture. The writing for the orchestra does more than simply support the oboe. A very moving work, which I can imagine being picked up by Classic FM in the UK; that is intended as sincere praise, not in any sense patronising.

Divertissement is an arrangement for string orchestra of Koehne’s first string quartet. The orchestral colour palette is, by necessity, more limited, and it is somewhat unusual to find that the outer movements are slow. The original quartet is an early work, when he was finding his way towards his eventual style and away from that of his teacher Richard Meale, a student of Boulez. It is more restrained than the other works, though not austere.

Between Two Worlds also uses a previous composition, the ballet 1914, the full recording of which is also available on ABC Classics. It is not a simple suite of movements from the ballet, as only one of the six movements shares its name and musical content with the original work. The selected material has undergone some reworking, for example, the fourth movement Sunset, based on the ballet scene Comrades in Arms, begins with the theme played on clarinet instead of the more martial trumpet, giving it a much more gentle feel. The ballet tells the story of a young man in country Australia joining the army, sailing for France and dying in the trenches. This suite uses none of the aggressive music from the battle scenes, and concentrates on the wistful and pastoral. As such, it stands alone as a beautiful and more contiguous work than the necessarily “bitty” ballet score.

The final work Time is a River is perhaps the best of the five. While written as a memorial to Koehne’s mother, it is not a simple elegy as with Persistence of Memory. The clarinet portrays the soul carried along by the strings as the river of time, at times turbulent, others gentle. Information that I could find which appears to quote from the notes only mentions a “persona” rather than specifically Koehne’s mother. Gerald Finzi’s clarinet concerto comes to mind as I listen. While only a single movement, this is a concerto, if not in form, then certainly in content, weight and quality.

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra may not have the cachet of the big city orchestras in Sydney and Melbourne, but it is very well represented in the catalogue, partly through this ABC Australian Composers series but also because of Hyperion’s Piano Concertos series, in which it has featured quite a few times. This is their second recording of Koehne’s music for ABC Classics (review). Without the booklet, I cannot be sure who the soloists are, but I assume they are the TSO’s principals: oboist David Nuttall and clarinettist Andrew Seymour. Suffice to say that they perform their roles splendidly.

This is a quite wonderful recording, which will get many, many plays in coming weeks. When 'Recordings of the Year' come round, it will unquestionably be on my list.

David Barker



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