LUZ MERIDIONAL: ANDRIÁN PERTOUT
Move Records MD 3435
Here’s another contribution to Australian music from pianist Michael Kieran Harvey who has directed his formidable talents and energy to a project by Melbourne composer Pertout. These 24 studies have a noteworthy genesis and – to use a term that’s probably best avoided – realization. Each of them is a homage – a homenaje, as Pertout terms it in his birth tongue – to a specific Australian composer; further, each piece is based on a quotation from a work that the composer researched and found (or should that be the other way around?) in the State Library of Victoria – the Australian Manuscripts section, to be precise. Pertout takes the quotation (only one for each study?) and transforms it by means of a range of techniques, some of which are familiar even to non-initiates.
For me, the experience promised a sort of walk around my youth and those years spent in a state of critical adolescence. I knew only one of the composers in person; a few of them I saw, either seldom or often; the great majority either died before I was aware of them or operated on levels unapproachable for a naive schoolboy/student. Pertout, in the main, goes back to a period in Australia’s compositional activity which predates that sudden coming-of-age in the 1960s with the emergence of Sculthorpe, Meale, Dreyfus and Butterley. Still, his choices of source-composers would be generally familiar enough to generations on either side of my own, even if experiences with shadowy corners of their output would have been confined all too often to the Lists of AMEB examinations.
This is, in fact, a double disc. The first presents the 24 études, played with an all-embracing authority by Harvey. The other is a DVD for downloading – a task that fell partly outside my abilities: I managed to play (and see) two of its three sections, the most valuable being a visual recording of Harvey playing seven of Pertout’s pieces, while another section was a short documentary about the creating of Luz meridional with some useful information from the composer. The part I couldn’t raise would have been just as interesting – a lecture by Arjun von Caemerrer: Luz meridional: An Introduction and Concordance from 2013 which offered ‘notes on the composition and the composers via Carter and Cowell.’ Caemmerer is a Hobart poet who has collaborated with Harvey on several projects and it would have been fascinating to hear/see him speak because Henry Cowell and Elliott Carter stand as the basic pillars for these compositions – their structure and language(s) in particular.
Without much detail, apart from the composer’s necessarily brief notes in the CD/DVD’s accompanying booklet, I found most of these compositions not exactly impenetrable, but cloudy. Because of the vintage of most of Pertout’s basic material, you are all too easily tempted to go looking for potential shapes and contours in the older Australian compositions; well, the ones you can trace. Had we but world enough, and time, we could follow Pertout’s footsteps through the State Library of Victoria and look at those 24 original works. But that venerable building is off-limits for the foreseeable future, so anything I proffer as commentary on the 24 Études is bound to be more than usually subjective. Even more importantly, what Pertout tells us about his practice tends towards the constructional, viz. his application of chords derived from Carter’s massive compendium, Harmony Book. Such material is intriguing but leaves you in an intellectually beleaguered state because you don’t know what chords are involved. I fear/hope that much of this might become clear if you gain access to Caemmerer’s lecture.
The suite opens with a salute to Roy Agnew, Niño dormiente, utilising one of his many piano miniatures: Sleeping Child from the Youthful Fancies of 1936. The original is an amiable piece with a simple melody that enjoys transposition and mutation within an increasingly chromatic accompaniment to add some interest to its meanderings. Pertout’s homage mirrors the original’s Impressionism-lite with a spot of pointillism before a return to haze; in its outer segments, the piece suggests drowsiness – all to the good – but, like so many of the material that follows, the tongue spoken is all Pertout.
Encuentro brings to the fore John Antill’s ballet Corroboree (1946) which made such a sensation on its first staged presentation in 1950, despite its reliance on percussion effects and disjunct rhythms, with a lack of other points of interest. Pertout has chosen the first number, Welcome Ceremony, with its unsatisfying Aboriginal-imitating gestures and out-of-place main theme that is first brought up by the trumpet. Pertout has created a brilliant-sounding detached note study that begins by concentrating Harvey’s attention in the piano’s top reaches, but the action spreads across the keyboard in a remarkable demonstration of what I can only typify as a snatch-and-grab exercise. You can see the pianist at work on this and the preceding Agnew work on the DVD recording which chronicles parts of a performance from Melbourne’s Recital Centre on August 5, 2017.
Don Banks left Australia in 1950 and his Divertimento for flute and string trio dates from the following year when he was studying with Matyas Seiber. What I can see of the two-movement score shows a sinewy, 12-tone-suggestive style at first with a hard-worked jaunty bite in the Rondo second movement. Diversión presents a contrast between a short repeated bass note anchor and abrupt coruscations in the instrument’s higher register. It’s a combination of the dour and the flashy. I didn’t know Banks at all (he was more a Canberra-Sydney resident when he returned here in 1972) and the only score of his that I know well is the angular Three Episodes of 1964, but I think he would have delighted in this salute.
Sadly, Arthur Benjamin is another of this country’s one-hit wonders, thanks to the catchy Jamaican Rumba; not that he spent much time in Australia, finding more amenable homes in England and Canada – still, it’s all one commonwealth, isn’t it? Pertout has searched out his 1947 Ballade for string orchestra to generate Balada: a one line toccata/moto perpetuo that suits Harvey down to the ground, even if there is one audible error in an unstoppable torrent of notes. The insane thing is that you (I) can hear traces of that Rumba where there are really none to find.
Clive Douglas, a journeyman conductor for the ABC in the days when that body ran the nation’s orchestras, went in for Australiana, both indigenous and imported. From the latter, Pertout chose Sturt, 1829, a piece that enjoyed a lot of airplay after its composition in 1952. Somewhere along the line, I acquired a copy of the score but it disappeared somewhere between house moves. In any case, this re-imagination, Poema sinfónico (which is how Douglas described this work – in English, of course) is the complete opposite to its predecessor. It’s mainly isolated notes in the upper keyboard, articulated quite strongly with a few subterranean forays to about Middle C and, across what I can make of it, the whole thing seems to involve white keys only. Mind you, Douglas’ lavish imagining of the explorer’s first expedition to find the inland sea is a solid example of Empire-building acclamation.
Mining the Satie cave, Peggy Glanville-Hicks wrote her 1953 Three Gymnopedies for oboe, celeste, harp and strings. The second one, referred to here, does without the oboe. I don’t know it and am not likely to have access to it but I take from Pertout’s title – Danza de guerra – that it’s active. So is this new piece, with a sort of restrained aggression in Harvey’s attack. Repeated single notes, motives in transposition, the whole finally fades to silence as the battle moves on. This rendition is one of those that can be found on Harvey’s live DVD performance.
Eugene Goossens came from the generation before Glanville-Hicks and had a powerful influence on Sydney’s musical life in my youth. His piano suite Kaleidoscope for piano is an early (1917) work, a collection of 12 short pieces from which Pertout has taken the second, Promenade. In the original this is mainly in 5/4 and is simply walking music with an abundance of colourful stepping chords over a sustained D; in Caleidoscopio, a bass note has become the focus, not as a sustained presence but as a percussive centrality. There is a transposition, a change of level, but the repeated note stays: a permanent fixture with flicks of sound around it – the embodiment of its title.
Is it disloyal to find Grainger’s Colonial Song pretty ordinary? Not a favourite, obviously, but I’m fond of many other works in the composer’s catalogue and I enjoyed limited access to the Grainger Museum back in the 1960s, thanks to an enthusiastic curator. Pertout’s Canción colonial opens with fierce tinkling at the top of the piano’s range and seems to settle into a two-part invention format with plenty of rhythmic juggling, so that the lines sound independent in every way that matters. At this point, I can’t see any relevance to the extroverted original.
Raymond Hanson’s Trumpet Concerto was his most often-performed composition (well, the ABC played it regularly) and Pertout has chosen it for his Nostalgia salute. A disjointed note-by-note progression in the treble is supported by soft arpeggiated chords in an angular lyric that seems to circle on itself; not actually finishing, but petering out. Still, it sent me back to the brilliant John Robertson 1952 recording in search of connections. Needless to say . . . This piece features on the accompanying DVD.
Richard Divall, that bonhomme of Australian conducting and research into the country’s musical byways, conducted Fritz Hart’s The Bush symphonic suite in 2003 but you’d be hard pressed to find a copy of the ensuing CD; still, you can hear the interpretation on YouTube. Pertout brought this 40 minutes-plus score out of storage for El bosque, a dynamic work with a repeated note pattern as a notable constituent; this Bush has a lively ambience which quality you can certainly in Divall’s interpretation of the composer’s solidly Romantic score.
Another name familiar from AMEB books, Marjorie Hesse wrote Melancholy for solo piano, probably about 1973. Melancolía sounds like a staccato Webern Piano Variations although the language is, if anything, diatonic. As well as performing a keyed role, Harvey also operates inside the instrument – a plucked note here, a few stopped knocks, a curt glissando to finish. It all makes for a piquant impression; nothing dreary or depressing, and you can see Harvey at work on the DVD.
They didn’t come more retrospective than Alfred Hill, this country’s GOM of music. He took on the white man’s burden and shouldered it for many years, producing solid works that enjoyed a good deal of attention but rarely for their ability to inspire. Retrospectivo is inspired by one of Hill’s piano solos which owes a good deal to Grieg. Once again, Harvey is mainly restricted to the piano’s upper reaches in another two-line piece that features repeating patterns in both hands. It’s as though Pertout is having his own retrospective, looking back to the American minimalists but without the tricksy rhythmic shifts. This is another of the études performed on the DVD.
Hill’s wife Mirrie was synonymous in my youth with the AMEB, for which body she wrote many piano miniatures. One was Meditation, a 1954 piece that here transforms expectedly to Meditación. This is brief, the second-shortest offering in the collection, and operates on three strata with another isolated note melody in the high treble, subterranean bass support and some supple chords at the centre of the piano. It is unusual in that its title is remarkably appropriate in mood to what you hear.
Alongside the Hills, Dulcie Holland was a long liver and also one of the AMEB’s stalwart organizers and contributors. Her 1963 Elegy for flute and piano, a gracefully looping construct that tests both instruments, provides the impetus for Elegia, another toccata here packed with a triplet moto perpetuo that is subject to two rhythmic displacements and resembles no other elegy I’ve ever heard because it excites rather than giving cause for rumination.
Some of us might recall the premiere of Synthesis by Robert Hughes around 1969; I’ve got very faint memories but the work failed to impress as much as the composer’s 1957 Sinfonietta which still strikes me as remarkably accomplished. Pertout has, however, chosen the Scottish-born composer’s later score for treatment as Sintesis. Here again, we are in the piano’s upper reaches where Harvey performs an exercise in limited materials, the same notes given oscillating treatment through flurries of loud and soft in close proximity.
As a student, I knew Keith Humble who took a postgraduate seminar at Melbourne University that I attended a few times before tiring of its unstructured nature. His Eight Bagatelles for piano come from 1992, written three years before his death and the most ‘modern’ music in this enterprise. Bagatela is the CD’s shortest track but one of its most active; Harvey gives an exhibition of brilliant pianism, blurting out notes from across the instrument’s compass with dazzlingly abrupt bursts of digital brilliance.
At the Sydney Conservatorium, I’d occasionally pass the benign figure of Frank Hutchens on the cramped stairs; I think the poor fellow once endured the horror of examining me in piano. His At the Bathing Pool comes from 1932 and can only be called a dated delight: energetic, buoyant (as you’d hope), and G Major to its bootstraps. En la piscina runs parallel to Hutchens’ initial semiquaver opening strophes with a similar burst of action that self-modifies before dying out – one of Pertout’s more frequent practices. But the emotional impressions are emphatically opposed: the older work, sunny and sentimental; the study, neurasthenic and unsettling.
Along with Dulcie Holland, Marjorie Hesse and Mirrie Hill, Miriam Hyde was a major contributor to the AMEB organization; like her colleagues, she was a familiar name to generations of Australian musicians, although not all of them could have picked her out in a crowd. Pertout chose her The Ring of New Bells, a piano solo from 1959, to bounce from and it is a perfectly acceptable four pages’ worth of tintinnabulation; you can find a portentous out-of-tune reading of it from Weymouth’s Duncan Honeybourne on YouTube. The new El anillo de nuevas campanas has its own brand of ringing, although Pertout’s bells eschew the stateliness of Hyde’s money-raising peals for St. Paul’s Church in Burwood, Sydney. The right hand follows a pattern of a falling 4th or 5th, followed by a leap to one of the piano’s top notes; all while the left hand follows its own round of changes. The effect is mildly clangorous, not quite regular enough to be mesmeric, but showing Harvey at his athletic best.
As he nears the end of his cycle, Pertout uncovers some names that, even if you recognize them, the odds are you’ve heard precious little of their music. Such a one is Horace Keats, who migrated here from Britain after World War I and became, among other activities, a song-writer of significance. His Sea-wraith of 1939 has a simple ternary structure, an art song with a deftly-established emotional soundscape. Fantasma del mar is brief and updates the chords that figure in Keats’ outer sections; here they are not striding past, but float. The new look suggests haze and a more veiled menace than in the original lied.
Louis Lavater is another one of those semi-forgotten names, although he lived long and apparently prospered, his forte being bush ballads. Pertout eschews the Paterson/Lawson element for an SATB Gloria setting of 1939 which yielded source material for this unexpected homage. I can’t find any trace of this piece, not even in the Australian Music Centre’s archive, so have to take the new Gloria on its own terms. It is the longest track on the CD and probably the most texturally dense with a wealth of Pertout tropes: penetrating top notes of the instrument, ponderous bass humming, a continuous central stratum of activity, repetition of patterns and motives and chords. In this instance, the dynamic range is sustained at a particular level for some time. The first 5½ minutes impress as massive building blocks: this hymn of praise (if it is one, and not a vocal quartet celebrating a Hollywood actress) is not represented by chains of angelic singing but vaulting salutes that pile Pelion upon Ossa, until the eventual fade into eternity.
His setting of Sonnet 87, Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing, is the earliest (possibly: 1954?) of four Shakespeare songs that Dorian Le Gallienne produced in his brief life. Although I eventually fell into his job, I never met this most encouraging of Melbourne music critics, only sighting him from a distance at Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concerts during my undergraduate years. His interpretation of the text is to treat it as an English art song, the sort of object that proved very popular for salon purposes throughout the first half of the 20th century, featuring a forward vocal line and unassuming chordal piano support. Pertout calls his piece Despedida (Farewell) and it is more chameleonic than expected with a dependence on brief flurries, chopped notes and a sustained melodic chain in the centre while fireflies flicker above and below it.
Another crypto-Australian composer, London-born William Lovelock spent 25 years here; initially as the first director of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, then as a freelance pedagogue and music critic. His Three Sketches for flute and piano – Aubade, Pastorale, and Valse Caprice – date from 1959 and Pertout has apparently chosen all three for his Tres bosquejos: the second-longest work on this recording. Lovelock’s original music is impossible to trace, but the latter-day incarnation is another two-part work with a sort of four-note germ-motive dominating the forward movement. These lines are in constant argument or competition, a repressed middle nocturne giving way to a vehement fantasia in which each register takes its turn in the limelight. Three sketches, three segments.
Second-last of the études celebrates the perennially under-represented James Penberthy, singling out an organ piece, Hymn for the death of Jesus, from the composer’s broad catalogue. The only knowledge I have of this 1972 work comes from Douglas Lawrence’s Reverberations recordings which emerged some time in the 1970s. As with the Clive Douglas score of Sturt, 1829, these LPs have disappeared, possibly into my son-in-law’s gigantic vinyl archive. I’ve no recollection of Penberthy’s Hymn, but Pertout’s Himno para la muerte de Jesús is one of the more memorable of the entire set. You can see Harvey at work as this is the last of the filmed DVD performances. He operates for much of the piece inside the piano and progress is by a series of spurts with plenty of silences and sustained sound-meshes. I don’t like to be flippant but it’s reminiscent of Messiaen – without the birds, or the rhythms, or the modes of limited transposition.
To end, Pertout expends his final homage on Margaret Sutherland. I only shared one experience with this formidable composer – in a South Yarra art gallery where a group, including Sutherland and Helen Gifford, assembled to hear a recording of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. Avoiding the obvious Sutherland familiarities like Haunted Hills or The Young Kabbarli, Pertout takes up the Six Profiles for piano from 1947: With animation, Expressively, Cool and detached, A little fussily, Quietly flowing, Rhythmically. The writing is as angular as a good deal of the composer’s chamber music, cleverly argued and determined on dissonance. Here, Seis perfiles starts like a cross between Bartok and bebop, moving the repetitive rhythmic passion up through the keyboard’s range. Then follow a series of episodes – possibly five: if so, they curve into each other – which comprise patterns that contain ostinati or simply repeated chords welding into a compelling virtuosic display that comes to a definite, fortissimo end.
This is an extraordinary composition. To the nostalgic, it brings to mind the surprising number of worthwhile composers that operated in this country before the dawn of Las Alboradas, Laudes, From Within, Looking Out among others, and our abrupt accession to 20th century compositional semi-maturity in the 1960s. Even if you cannot follow Pertout into his chord structures and mathematical decisions, the work shows an enviably fecund mind at work with a singular responsiveness to piano textures and sound-production techniques. It helps immeasurably that the writer has Harvey as an interpreter, a musician who has entered into Pertout’s creation with his usual single-minded dedication, extraordinary comprehension of the task, and brilliant technical delivery.
I doubt that you will hear 24 Études in live performance very often (more’s the pity) but this exceptionally clear rendition (thank you once again, Move stalwarts Martin Wright and Vaughan McAlley) is a most valuable substitute. This is a music that may fuse past and present but unarguably it shows itself to be a consistently inventive exploration of what music in our time could be.