Sunday, August 19, 2012

If you can only have ONE Peter Sculthorpe CD...

Peter Sculthorpe: Earth Cry; Piano Concerto William Barton, didgeridoo; Tamara Anna Cislowska, piano New Zealand Symphony, James Judd, conductor Naxos 8.557382 (Released February 2005)

[I wrote this a while back as a CD review, but in response to a recent Twitter discussion that centered around Sculthorpe's music, I thought I'd post it here. I've updated it slightly. Hopefully I'll write on his string quartets soon.]

Will Peter Sculthorpe’s time ever come? Long known as Australia’s preeminent composer, his music is rarely performed beyond his country’s shores. His elder statesman status at home has not helped his music gain much traction abroad, and we are all the poorer for it. This release on the Naxos label makes a strong argument for a wider appreciation of his music, offering five works from Sculthorpe’s orchestral oeuvre, all from within the last thirty years.

Sculthorpe (b. 1929) was among the first of Australia’s composers to attempt to forge a national style that looked to Eastern and aboriginal models and materials, rather than those of the European musical heritage. His music is highly original and disarmingly direct—what he calls "music of straightforward line and structure"—tending toward leanness and transparency and often rather short in duration. He often uses aboriginal material in his writing and tends to favor stringed instruments, piano and percussion. His melodies are spare and simple, with an emphasis on repetition and variation of timbre rather than tonal development. He frequently rearranges his works for various forces; many of his works exist in more than one realization—indeed, one work here, From Oceania, is a revision of a 1970 version. He seeks to convey his sense of the continent's history, its landscape, and the harsh, incessantly blazing sun.

The opening work on this disc, Earth Cry, is perhaps the most openly “Australian-sounding,” with its featured didgeridoo soloist. Cast in four distinct sections, it is emblematic of Sculthorpe’s unaffected language. The violins often play in unison, and the composer in general avoids any “sophisticated” orchestrational techniques. Sculthorpe doesn't trade much in extended techniques or "modern-sounding" musical language, but there is a keen musical sensibility at work here and his priority is to communicate without emphasizing the musical skill involved. Like the "artless art" of Mozart, Sculthorpe's music is much more than it seems to be at first.

The largest work on the disc, and to my ears its centerpiece, is the Piano Concerto, from 1983. This is an extraordinary piece, and soloist Anna Tamara Cislowska performs the subtle part with insight and aplomb. This work is more expansive than many of his pieces, but not especially extravagant in gesture; essentially ruminative for most of its twenty-one minutes, it has some powerful moments nonetheless. I find its conclusion one of the most finely judged and satisfying endings I've ever heard. Ian Munro, with Diego Masson conducting the Australia Youth Orchestra recorded an earlier version of this work, which was my introduction to the piece (Tall Poppies TP 113, coupled with oboe and cello concertos by Carl Vine and David Lumsdaine, respectively), and there is yet another recording available, unheard by me at present (“Australian Piano Concertos,” Eloquence CD 426483, coupled with piano concertos of Ross Edwards and Malcom Williamson). The Naxos recording is a much stronger performance than Munro/Masson (though the Australian Youth Orchestra sounds pretty terrific for their level of experience), and might be preferable for its all-Sculthorpe couplings as well.

The disc is rounded out with Memento Mori, From Oceania, and Kakadu, each displaying a distinctive aspect of Sculthorpe’s art, making an ideal introduction to his music. The New Zealand Symphony plays exceptionally well under Judd, as they have on many other fine recordings. And with Naxos’s attractive pricing, no-one has an excuse not to hear this important composer in some of his strongest musical statements. Vigorously recommended.

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