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Women of Note
A Century of Australian Composers - Volume 3
Recording details not provided
Reviewed as a digital download.
Download only from UK dealers; booklet not included.
ABC 485 5858 [139:00]

A few years ago, prompted by a comment from one of my daughters, I set out to explore the music of women composers. I initially planned to listen to nothing but the music of female composers for a week, but a week quickly became two which then became a month, which in time became several months. I can’t say I ended the process any more fond of the output of Clara Schumann or Fanny Mendelssohn than I was at the start, but what I had discovered was the world of contemporary women composers. It seems to me the future of classical music is likely to be feminine and is in good hands.

The recording under consideration here is the third in an enterprising series from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation devoted to the women composers of Australia. At the outset, it is worth pointing out that if there is a great divide in contemporary classical between the more dissonant and the more consonant, my usual preference is for the dissonant. I was, therefore, surprised at how much I enjoyed this compilation, given that it is very decidedly on the consonant side of the fence. Probably as a result of this preference, I had only previously encountered one of the composers featured, Liza Lim. Very little on this collection would have troubled a moderately open-minded audience about the time of the First World War. What you won’t get is anything influenced by the Second Viennese School of Webern, Berg and Schoenberg, let alone anything more modern.

What you do get is a burst of Australian sunshine, which was particularly welcome in a rather wet Covid hit English summer. The opening piano trio by Anna Cawrse is diatonic and unashamedly melodic and it sets the tone for the rest rather well. The performances and the recording are top drawer and go a long way to selling the music. I haven’t been able to track down all the performance dates of the various recordings here, because the notes supplied with this download-only release are extremely sparse, but some of the music here is culled from previous releases.

There is a tendency for the music to drift toward film or tv music. This is most noticeable in The Witching Hour, a concerto for the extraordinary combination of eight double basses, by Elena Kats-Chernin. This could easily be from the soundtrack of a Harry Potter spin-off. It is highly inventive music but, like a real soundtrack, I found it lacked a certain something to hold my attention for its entirety. I hope I don’t sound too damning if I say that a lot of the music included in this set is highly pleasant listening without really lingering in the memory.

But enough carping from me! There is lots to enjoy on this recording. There is, for instance, an affecting trio by Natalie Williams entitled Songs of Silent Earth. Again, it is nothing revolutionary but it is all beautifully done. From an earlier generation, Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ lively Sinfonia da Pacifica had me thinking of her compatriot Percy Grainger even though the first two movements bear the fingerprints of her teacher Vaughan Williams without ever sacrificing her own voice.

At the heart of the collection are a few more bracing pieces: Felicity Wilcox’s piece People of this Place satisfyingly explores the overlap between the modern clarinet and sounds I associate with the didgeridoo and banishes any thoughts of a disgraced Australian entertainer in the process; Liza Lim’s Weaver-of-fictions explores similar terrain but in a gentler way on the recorder; and finally, deploying a Japanese flute called a shakuhachi with a conventional string quartet, Holly Harrison’s Flashpoint finds new ways of evoking the Australian experience.

Probably my favourite piece was Katia Beaugeais’ luminous Like Snowdrops You Will Shine. This is another good demonstration that a composer doesn’t have to be terribly original but does need to have something to say. I can easily imagine this becoming something of a contemporary classical hit if it got the airplay. The same could be said of Caerwen Martin’s expansive, dream-like Stars Come Out in a Midnight Sky.

I have barely scratched the surface of the delights on offer – I haven’t even mentioned the sunlit minimalism of Hilary Kleinig’s Cockatoos, for example – but I’m not sure an endless list will be desperately helpful.

A considerable amount of care and affection seems to have gone into the selection and sequencing of the various items that make up this release and, taking the album as a whole, it is a very enjoyable listen rather than seeming bitty. The technical standard of the recordings is uniformly first class, not an easy thing with this kind of compilation which mixes orchestral with chamber music and music originating from a variety of original releases. The performances reflect well on what is clearly a vibrant classical scene in Australia at the moment. My only gripe concerns the paucity of information on the composers and their music included. I had to do my own research online to find out the most basic details, failing in most cases to find even birth dates, which is a pity as this collection is a great calling card for the composers involved.

I haven’t yet got to the previous two volumes of this series but the pleasure given by this one makes that a certainty. There is lots of fine music to discover here, even for those normally allergic to new music, so if another Covid summer is getting you down why not treat yourself to a blast of Australian sunshine?

David McDade

Anne CAWRSE (b.1981)
Songs Without Words [15:10]
Benaud Trio
Fiona LOADER (b.1964)
Lorikeet Corroboree [5:37]
Ensemble Offspring
The Witching Hour: Concerto for Eight Double Basses
Kaes Boersma, Timothy Dunin, Alex Henery, Max McBride, Kirsty McCahon, Matthew McDonald, Robert Nairn, Caro Vigilante (double basses) Australian World Orchestra/Alexander Briger
Caerwen MARTIN
Stars Come Out in a Midnight Sky [5:22]
ACO Collective
Cockatoos [5:13]
Muses Trio
Desert Rose [2:44]
Ensemble Offspring
Bell Birds: III Lento sognando [5:56]
Darlington Quartet
Jessica WELLS
The Night Parrot (excerpts) [6:53]
Morgan England-Jones (soprano) Acacia Quartet
Leonie COHEN
Lights Finale [4:46]
Muses Trio
Of Stars and Birds [4:08]
Ensemble Offspring
Songs of Silent Earth [12:54]
Muses Trio
Felicity WILCOX
People of This Place [7:56]
Ensemble Offspring
Liza LIM
Weaver-of-fictions [4:24]
Genevieve Lacey (recorder)
Flashpoint [8:05]
Riley Lee (shakuhachi) Enigma Quartet
Elizabeth SHEPPARD
Kalgoorli Silky Pear [6:17]
Scott Davis (1770 square piano)
Katia BEAUGEAIS (b.1976)
Like Snowdrops You Will Shine [5:46]
ACO Collective
Peggy GLANVILLE-HICKS (1912-1990)
Sinfonia da Pacifica [12:47]
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Richard Mills

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