ROY AGNEW Piano Music.     Larry Sitsky. Anthology of Australian Music on Disc CSM19 Childers St Acton, GPO Box 804, Canberra ACT, Australia 2601. ( 06 249 5700; 06 248 0997).


I encountered the music of Roy Agnew many years ago, discovering several short pieces Pangbourne Fields, Rabbit Hill and a number of Preludes - in the boxes of music which lurk in dark corners of 2nd hand book shops. I have to confess that these pieces are in no way a preparation for the intensity of the Piano Sonatas by this Australian composer now recorded by Professor Larry Sitsky on a CD in a series entitled "Anthology of Australian Music on Disc". I fancy that, even if the name Agnew is known, these particular compositions will be new to very many listeners today.

Rita Crews’ excellent resumé of Agnew’s work in  the British Music Society News 73, is therefore opportune - and if her tantalising references to Scriabin, Bax, John Ireland and Cyril Scott are not at first fully appreciated, this CD will rapidly convince the listener that this is not the parochial music of a distant colonial, but a richly powerful contribution to the mainstream of Anglo-European music in the 20th century. Few British (?) composers of the early years of this century have written with distinction for the piano. And even fewer have tackled the would-be strictures of sonata form: the exceptions (of which Mac-Dowell’s four are the progenitors) are notable: Dale (1), Bax (4), Bowen (6), Ireland (1), Scott (3), Bridge (1). I would happily now add Agnew to that company.

This is impassioned music. The first sounds one hears are unmistakably Scriabinesque - then one is conscious of MacDowell, Ireland, Cyril Scott .... I have said it often before - these are the dippings into the common pot of 20th century musical experience in this country: what comes over strongly in these works is Agnew’s individuality and at the same time how assured is his use of the language that, despite the diversity of compositional talent in those years, is that of the music of that period in this country. This individuality must surely become even more evident when the Sonatas become available in print. Performances of these works - by Agnew himself in England but also by Moiseiwitsch, Cortot, and William Murdoch - were not infrequent in the ’20s and ’30s - and broadcasts in Australia in the ’40s were also then relayed by the BBC. With his early death at 53 in 1944 however his star seemed to fade.

On this disc, played with enthusiastic advocacy by Larry Sitsky (a pupil of Petri, and Head of Composition at the Canberra School of Music, on the staff of which he has been since 1961) there are six Sonatas ranging in duration from 6 to 11 minutes - all single movements of considerable stature - and a handful of shorter pieces. The Sonatas (the first four of which are played in apparently chronological order, show a developing intensity of idea, from the opening exultant Scriabinesque gestures of the Sonata Fantasie to the cogent E flat world of the monothematic Sonata Legend (Capricornia 1949) with its dark opening. After the abrupt ending of the first Sonata the meandering opening of the Sonata Poem (1936) is in lighter contrast. This capricious will-o-the-wisp’ish kind of Scherzo seems to inhabit a fanciful world of centaurs and wood folk. The third of the Sonatas, entitled Ballade, elicited the perspicacious comment from Petri ‘a cross between Scriabin and Ireland’ - it contains some richly expressive passages of quartal harmony. Throughout these works one is conscious of certain melodic finger-prints - a five-note figure, a questing rising pattern often followed by a falling phrase, (sequential use of this pattern reminiscent of Bax’s ‘sea’ music), a plethora of accented apoggiaturas - and while some individuality can be noted in pieces like the early Prelude No. 4 (1927) Agnew’s mature musical character is very evident and overall, the sweep of the musical canvas is impressive. Two hitherto unpublished Sonatas follow - the first of which, designated as Sonata 1929, is a catalogue of these fingerprints, from the indeterminate questioning opening to the recurring rhapsodic outbursts. The following Sonata Symphonique (pre-1920?) is the most avowedly programmatic of the six, with its references to Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’. The opening sequence of descending chromatic 9ths, marked ‘very cold and desolate’ certainly evokes the world of: ‘the sedge has withered from the lake/and no birds sing’ This sombre work concludes on a long pedal point. If any influence is seen here it is that of Cyril Scott. The last five tracks are given to shorter but no less intense compositions that are in no way trifles. Indeed a technique of considerable virtuosity is required to cope with the frenetic outbursts of the Medtner-like Poème Tragique. Similarly the final Dance of the Wild Men (Grainger must have loved this piece?) is demanding in the extreme. In between the song-like Deirdre’s Lament built on an obsessive dark pedal F is perhaps the most approachable. One is left with the conviction that this music belongs indisputably to the main-stream of 20th century music.


Colin Scott-Sutherland

Reviewer Colin Scott-Sutherland
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