Remembering the gentle man


Various artists

Move Records

Peter Sculthorpe

He was the most fortunate composer of his time and place; everything came to him without apparent effort – critical plaudits, friends, commissions, public appreciation, honours and prizes.  Nobody had a bad word to say about him, although some of his contemporaries were snippy at his run of successes.   Even his failures served as momentary hiccups rather than career-threatening disasters; the 1974 opera Rites of Passage at the Sydney Opera House scored some favourable reviews.  When Peter Sculthorpe died two years ago aged 85, a national presence closed up shop and suddenly we were poorer for it.

Critics and composers usually react uneasily together; I don’t know many of the former who go out of their way to offend deliberately – a few, always unqualified for the job – but many musicians have no desire to read anything but praise and, if they are writers, have little charity with even the most benign mind that grapples with their work and reaches an ambiguous or a disappointed finding.   Sculthorpe, pretty much alone in my experience, had broad shoulders for public appraisal; moreover, he seemed to bear no grudges.

I met him once only but had some slight correspondence over the years.   Attempting an eventually futile M. A. in 1974/5 with a poorly equipped supervisor, I contacted three Australian composers about specific pieces in their respective oeuvres.  One of them informed me where I ‘might’ be able to buy a copy of his deathless masterwork; another refused to correspond except through his publisher; within a few days, Sculthorpe sent back a Faber edition of his score with an encouraging inscription.   A bit less than 30 years later, this time essaying a M. Mus., I contacted four composers asking for interviews.   All obliged, but Sculthorpe as host in his Woollahra house was particularly welcoming – affable for hours, unflappable when confronted with unintended impertinences and, after he finally read the thesis, generous in remarking on its few strengths.

This CD offers a miscellany, much of it familiar to hardened concert-goers because of certain pieces’ popularity with musicians, but nearly all of the content speaks in Sculthorpe’s own language.   The tracks come from previous recordings, nearly all on the Move label with one ring-in from the Colgate-Rochester Divinity School Chapel, New York. The period covered is two decades – 1975 to 1995 – but one piece harks back to the occasion of a memorable Sculthorpe success: Love 200, written for a 1970 Sydney Symphony Orchestra Town Hall Proms concert and featuring the group Tully.   You won’t find that psychedelic extravaganza here, nor any of the Sun Musics or Kakadu; all of this particular retrospective is confined to chamber music.

A few of the pieces are arrangements, some of them enthusiastically endorsed by the composer, like Wagogo Plains (originally the Morning Song, one of the composer’s more popular lyrics) which has Max Cooke and Darryl Coote performing the piano duet parts but superimposed is throat singer Dean Frenkel contributing a high flute-like melody above a softly whirring vocal support drone.   Reshaped for plucked instrument ensemble, the Little Suite of 1983 sounds more French in flavour than ever, the Concordia Mandolin and Guitar Ensemble timbre dripping Piafian nostalgie; Michelle Nelson‘s orchestration suits the opening Sea Chant, its string ripples and sizzles highly atmospheric for the lilting main melody; the following Little Serenade with its rueful sequences of 2nds veers closely towards the sound world that Sculthorpe aimed for in the suite’s concluding Left Bank Waltz.

The version of Songs of Sea and Sky that opens the CD is performed by flautist Derek Jones and pianist Leigh Harrold.   Of the original work’s seven parts, six appear in this reading, quite obviously with Sculthorpe’s endorsement.  Based on a Torres Strait island song, the suite is an integrated composite, even with the introduction of bird chirps in the Mission Hymn movement which turns the basic material to illustrate a Western evangelical end. The performance has all you could want: flawless articulation from Jones and an unflurried handling of the keyboard part, notably at the start of the Dance-like movement.

The odd-man-out from New York is guitarist Jonathan Paget playing From Kakadu, for which the composer re-employed the main theme from his large-scale orchestral work.  Written for Darwin’s 1993 Shell Guitar Festival, this sequence of four movements sits astride complementary worlds of remote landscape musing and responsive observation.  For example, the initial Grave suggests isolation, a lonely figure in a country without horizon; the following Commodo gives the impression of a complaisant visitor, ambling through the Territory, mirrored in the warmly responsive account that Paget gives of the final Cantando –  contented music without much exertion to interrupt the atmosphere of languor.

Dream Tracks for clarinet/violin/piano trio is another Territory piece in four sections that offers exposure to all its executants: a long piano solo for Stephen Emmerson at the start, an unusually concordant duet for Floyd Williams‘ clarinet and Michele Walsh‘s violin during the  third Lontano movement, while Sculthorpe revisits one of his distinctive Arnhem Land chants, Djilile, in the even-numbered movements to hypnotic effect, the whole rising to a sort of cock-crowing jubilation and peroration as the finale circles onto a rousing D Major full-stop.

The piece that harks back to Sculthorpe’s 1970 Proms triumph, Night Song, appears in an arrangement for violin, cello and piano performed by Trio Melbourne (Isin Cakmakcioglu, Rachel Atkinson and Roger Heagney respectively).  Its minor mode melancholy still has great appeal; a slow-moving work, it makes few demands on its interpreters or its listeners – a placid, sonorous oasis.  The Melbourne String Quartet plays Sculthorpe’s 9th exercise in the form:  one movement with five sections, the first two accomplished very quickly, soundscapes of little depth preceding a long central elegy which boasts a 12-note melody which is humanised by plenty of tonal unde

rlay.   I’d forgotten how this ensemble   –  violins Carl Pini and Gerard van der Weide, viola Jane Hazelwood, cello Arturs Ezergailis   –  could produce a laudably clean and mobile output on its better days.  This version has no surprises outside a few in the score itself, like a sudden ponticello slash of semiquavers across a quiescent soundscape, showing the teeth behind the muzzle.

The collection ends with 11:59 PM, originally the Nocturnal of 1989 which Robert Chamberlain recorded the following year for Move.  Over his agile piano part, Dean Frenkel offers his own superimposed throat-singing commentary.  Once again, it must have been all right with Sculthorpe as he has included this superscription in his catalogue of works; after the Wagogo Plains effort earlier on this disc, I think that a little goes just far enough.

At the end, you have heard a fair sample of the composer’s smaller works, enough to give those unfamiliar with his voice a good idea of his individual language and his emotional breadth, as well as an unabashed statement of connection to the continent’s vastness as he perceived it.  For those of us with more years of Sculthorpe experiences than we might care to remember, some of these pieces surprise by their power to recall those years when the 20th century came alive in Australia’s music, and when a new work by this amiable musician was a matter to generate passionate discussion and interest.    And it brings back to the mind  –  well, this one  –  memories of a kind, generous and gentle soul whose avuncular presence is greatly missed.

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