Short and mainly sweet

MUSE

Alicia Crossley, Acacia Quartet

Move Records MCD 587

Here’s an all-Australian product which, in six works, covers a limited amount of ground, a fragment in the small world of this country’s serious music-making. Most of the composers are unknown to me; but then, what would you expect from someone vegetating outside the contemporary music scene? The exception is Anne Boyd, an eminent offshoot of that Sydney branch of Australian composers who came of age all together in the 1960s. She was a student of Peter Sculthorpe and produced some significant works that have worn well, more so than those by many of her contemporaries. Apart from her creative accomplishments, Boyd has been a senior academic on three continents, her struggles in that thankless sphere sadly documented in the Bob Connolly/Robin Anderson film Facing the Music (2001) where her efforts to obtain funding for music courses in Sydney University’s Arts Faculty were unsuccessful.

Yuya, like every work on this disc, asks for recorder and string quartet; which is understandable, given the personnel involved – no point cutting out a string or two when they’re all available. I’m finding it hard to date this work definitively but, as Boyd wrote it for British composer Anthony Gilbert’s 70th birthday concert in Manchester, that puts it more or less at about 2004. In any case, the atmosphere is faux-Japanese with lots of sobbing shakuhachi work from Crossley’s tenor recorder, the timbre of which dominates the action with the Acacias confined for a long central stretch to accompanying tremolandi and pizzicati.

Boyd’s emotional scenario derives from a noh play in which Yuya, a prince’s mistress, wants to visit her sick mother but is refused permission. She dances among a temple’s cherry trees to such effect that the prince allows her to go on the journey after all. The central dance with its regular metre and flights of recorder fancy is surrounded by more fragmented writing. All players perform this small-framed piece with loads of conviction, making a persuasive case for its gestures and pentatonic melodic roots. As well, it’s a pleasure to see the composer sticking to that last which has been the bedrock of her craft over the last half-century and more

This CDs longest work is Three Bilitis Movements by Lyle Chan, an Australian composer of no little repute whose work I’ve never come across. The Movements are an offshoot of the composer’s efforts in 2018 when he was commissioned to write the three missing components of Debussy’s projected final three sonatas. Chan was drawn to the three-part song cycle that the composer based on some of Pierre Louys’ fake Greek translations of poetry that he himself wrote, thereby setting up a wealth of lesbic lyric material for future generations, as well as his own. Oddly enough, the three Debussy songs read as thoroughly heterosexual, but then I’m probably missing a world of subtleties. In any case, Chan has made up his own poems based on Louys’ originals; The Dancers of Mytilene, The Rains of Spring and Morning, and a startlingly brief To invoke Pan, god of the summer wind.

You are hard pressed not to find echoes in the first of these movements. It starts with a kind of swagger like a Copland reel for all farm hands; this doesn’t last too long before the section stops and another one takes off, and on it goes, so that this track takes on the nature of a suite, the last segment calling to mind some ersatz Peruvian folk-songs. Chan’s poem puts us in the capital of the island Lesbos with three dancers at work, accompanied by two flautists. As suggestive of ancient Greek choreography like the kordax, this is miles away from any Aegean setting that I know and the movement’s sectional nature means you might find a common underpinning but nothing sequential: dances rather than dancers, I would have thought.

The nature scene of Movement Two presents as a nice tune suggestive of both a Westernised lyric from China and a hymn tune that Ives might have enjoyed faffing around with. In effect, the movement has traces of a harmony exercise with the occasional deviation into unexpected territory before returning to orthodox ground. Crossley eventually takes over and the interest stays with her leading voice for most of the work’s length. In the final half, the pages take on the character of a lullaby in triple time, gifted with a plain final cadence. The woodland god makes a very quick showing, his flute given to glissando sweeps from Crossley and precious little Acacia input; this is also the most adventurous music in the triptych and comes closest to the erotic potential suggested by Bilitis/Louys.

As for the largest single stretch of work here, it is Pass to us the cups with which sorrow is forgotten by London-based Sydney writer Chris Williams; a 2017/18 composition based on a poem/song by the Muslim 12th century poet Ibn Baqi. This lyric is the result of an amalgam of Islamic, Christian and Jewish strands that existed before Spain became a Christian (later Catholic) hell-hole: a musical mixture explored and exploited by Jordi Savall to often stunning effect. The main gist of the work is variation; Williams has taken the melody and given it varying guises but, in contemporary style, he hides the melody in plain sight, its appearance in something approaching clarity seeming to come in the score’s second half.

The opening is concerned with string clusters that concentrate on 2nd intervals with slight seconding from Crossley’s bass recorder. This suggests a concentration on atmosphere rather than exploitation of the original tune, but how can you tell, not knowing what to look for, bringing to mind Britten’s Nocturnal when all becomes clear only at the end? In fact, Williams maintains this textural focus until the score reaches its half-way mark where the pace livens up and you hear something more substantial than intervallic interplay. For all that flurry of activity in which strings and recorder share, the motion returns to quietude at the three-quarter mark from which point actual melodic phrases are outlined.

Even after several hearings, this track conserves its formal mysteries but draws you back through its concentrated lyricism. The composer is in no hurry to pique your interest – how could he, with a bass recorder? – but you have to admire the continuous vein of uninflected emotional stasis that persists for much of the quintet’s length. If you wanted, you could find in this music some suggestions of Omar Khayyamesque languor, the mental disruption of an Oriental mini-arabesque or two, but any suggestion of colour comes from the listener, imposed on a reflecting canvas.

What to make of Bat-Music by Sydney writer Stephen Yates? He accompanies his amiable, undisturbing piece for alto recorder and the Acacias with an elliptical booklet note that seems to suggest that the name implies nothing, even though its matter comes from an Isherwood setting from 1988 for voice and piano. Bat-Music presents as a series of movements; some linked, others taking off after a general pause. Lisa Stewart’s first violin gets a certain amount of exposure but the over-riding presence is Crossley. The whole effect is calm, even pastoral, without much intention of getting anywhere quickly. On top of that, you hear the odd bar that suggests other works; in particular, some by the more effete American woodsmen. A short recorder cadenza takes us into a splayed-out, summery major key conclusion. Not that I’m finding too much fault with a deftly written work; it’s just that, at the end, I’m still an empty vessel, willing to be receptive but floating in an undirected void.

Sydney film and theatre composer Jessica Wills (born in Florida but an Australian resident for many years) obviously had a great time in Denmark, if her Copenhagen Christmas is any indication. It’s unclear when this Scandinavian sojourn took place because the work is undated and relevant information on the web is vague, although we’d have to surmise that composition took place pre-2018 because the first performance by these very players was at the end of that year. The work is in two parts: Nisse and Hygge. The first is concerned with prank-pulling Danish gnomes – to me, the name suggests German aquatic creatures and, for some reason, Harry Potter – and Wills draws a lively musical picture of will-of-the-wisp creatures through pizzicati, rapid brief glissandi and perky recorder blurts and trills, with some ponticello textures to add spice and remind us that these creatures are not essentially benign.

The second movement is concerned with a term beloved of Sandi Tostvig. ‘Hygge’ suggests unbuttoned comfort and warmth of physical ambience – which could stand as benchmark indicators of a successful European Christmas. Here are sustained notes, recorder and violin single tones filtering into each other with occasional flurries and melodic motions that don’t expect to be taken seriously. Even the active segments that burst into brief climaxes give space to that initial placidity; nothing much is happening as the strings give a static backdrop to the recorder’s long-spun ruminations. I’m far from being an expert on recorders, but I think the second movement uses an alto recorder; certainly, its timbre is more muffled than that used for the playful gnomes of the first movement.

Finally, we hear Three by three, a suite beginning with a bass recorder, moving to an alto, then a sopranino. This piece from pianist/composer Sally Whitwell was commissioned by the performing artists; again, I’m not sure when it burst into the light but would assume quite recently. Whitwell takes some inspiration from Alice in Wonderland, the decreasing size of the recorders mirroring the reduction in size of Carroll’s heroine after she followed the direction to Drink Me. The three movements seem to drift into one another, although a definite pause preceded Movement Two.

The triptych makes for pleasant listening with little to distract from its instrumental merry-go-round; a divertissement gifted with melodic attractiveness and one of the few tracks on the album that gives the strings a bit of sustained attention. What it brings to mind is British chamber music during the first half of the last century: craftsmanlike, polite in its emotional output, almost bucolic at times, demanding little by way of concentrated attention span. The final section lasts as long as its precedents combined but the segment that stays with you is the middle one which is a waltz of unselfconscious grace.

This recording project appears to have come around as a result of public performances by Crossley and the Acacia Quartet. The works by Chan, Williams, Yates and Wells all received their premieres at a Muse-entitled recital in the Utzon Room of the Sydney Opera House on December 8, 2018. Whitwell’s piece might also have enjoyed the same experience but you can whistle Dixie for any meaningful web information on that particular writer. The CD’s length is on the short side – a fraction over 50 minutes – but it makes for an agreable summer-kissed aural feast, one that highlights Crossley’s talent, especially her purity in agile passages and her restraint with vibrato in sustained notes, viz. Wells’ second movement. It serves as an insight into a lesser-known reach of Sydney’s musical world – and (a day late) an excellent present for Australia Day.

‘Tis the season, all right

CHRISTMAS VARIATIONS

Megan Reeve

Move Records MCD 585

In this collection by Melbourne-based harpist Megan Reeve, you’ll come across some undeniable Christmas music. The final track is a refreshing version of O come, all ye faithful, arranged by Oregon harpist Kathryn Cater. Reeve’s major offering is the 1917 Variations pastorales sur un vieux Noel by Marcel Samuel-Rousseau. She includes a reading of the Interlude from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, as well as three different arrangements of John Henry Hopkins’ We Three Kings. For that little touch of essential Australiana, she presents an arrangement by Jason Reeve (relation?) of The silver stars are in the sky, one of William G James’ more successful Australian Christmas Carols, this one coming from the first set of 1948. As a cultural counterweight, the harpist plays an arrangement of Jesus, Jesus rest your head, an Appalachian carol arranged by British academic Nigel Springthorpe.

I’m a bit more questioning about an amalgam of the Pachelbel D Major Canon with The First Noel, although the conjunction is not a new one; here, the version is by Reeve herself and she plays second fiddle to the sensitive flute of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Sarah Beggs, who is also involved in a two-verse reading of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria. And the opening track, Carols for Christmas, nonplusses completely by starting with Greensleeves before entering into the appropriate seasonal spirit with Deck the halls and Silent Night, this compendium the brainchild of Wenonah M. Govea, who may still be alive but I can only trace her to California State University where she was harp guru 32 years ago.

I’ve got vague memories of the English tune (Henry VIII? Please stop stretching the bounds of credibility) being given a Christmas text, as in What Child is this, and I have more concrete recall of the tune being included in the big Oxford Book of Carols: a solid tome that I gave away after too many years sustaining a singularly amateur church choir. In this CD’s context, it begins with some nice scrubbing preludial discords – very Brittenesque – but the air itself is given out sensitively, those opening chords linking to Deck the halls, where Reeve shows a nice touch of rubato before sliding into a Silent Night where Gruber’s tune is first delivered in harmonics underneath some silvery treble ripples before the expected arpeggiated chords treatment wends its way to a restful and polished conclusion.

Samuel-Rousseau’s variations – seven of them, with a brief conclusion – strike me as belonging to a tradition I can lazily trace to d’Aquin’s mid-18th century Nouveau livre de Noels; by a stroke of luck, an old instructor pointed me in the direction of the tenth, for Grand jeu et duo, to prepare for what must have been a fairly elementary examination. The modern work was published in 1919 but has a soft harmonic structure; you’d expect that from a writer who stayed true to his heritage (and his material), ignoring the potential for thrills and spills fomented by his immediate forbears. The tune is positioned in a modal G minor – with the B flat in play, but the E flat is naturalized in the key signature. There is a slight divergence in the third strophe which stretches to five bars rather than the four that has prevailed up to this point and after it.

Variation 1 treats the theme’s contours as a decoration, the emphasis falling on louder full-bodied chords; its time-signature oscillates between 5/4 and 4/4 which makes more sense on paper than in auditory terms. The next treatment is far more adventurous in that the Noel almost disappears under a flurry of glissandi, repeated arpeggios and a disposition where the initial phrase’s contour can still be perceived but is covered in rapid semiquavers shared between the player’s hands. Next up, we’re in more settled harmonic territory – an unabashed B flat Major – and the rhythmic space between strophes 1 and 2 is truncated to intriguing effect; again, the progress is interlarded with rapid-fire figuration, although the forward motion seems to be a thing of quick starts and detours.

We’re back with the modal in Variation 4 which is a 3/4 transformation of the main theme into a bold chorale with punctuating arpeggios between the lines. Triplets dominate most of Variation 5 where you can pick out the Noel clearly, and Variation 6 opens with a bold 3/4 statement in the vogue of Variation 4, but the plain-chords disintegrate into a 12-bar dissolve by way of arpeggios , a long downward one with a set of ascending single notes to set up tension for the final brief 11-bar variation, a Lent, where Samuel-Rousseau picks out his tune in left-hand harmonics before a gentle G Major conclusion in which the tune has been mutated into something less archaic, more Romantic than in its initial form. Reeve shows a fine responsiveness to the many changes rung throughout this oddly touching work; like a Calvin Bowman song – out of its time but appealing for all that.

Reeve’s own handling of We Three Kings comes across as placid in content with no harmonic surprises, the only oddity an extension of certain strophes by two bars in both verses and chorus. She brings the melody down an octave for the second-run-through which allows for rich chords to replace the single-note accompaniment of the opening. Verlene Schermer, currently resident in San Jose and an aficionado of many types of harp, brings into play a gentle cross-current from the start of her version: a 3-against-2 introduction, feather-light, leads to an outline of the Hopkins melody that enjoys an unusual high register and emotional reticence; unexpected when you consider that the composer intended his carol to be dominated by male solos, suggestive of the Three Kings. Schermer scoops in some syncopation, chiefly by avoiding strong beats for the end of each line, bringing the final note in a quaver before it is due; updating, sure, but this well-worn tune can stand it.

Treatment 3 comes from Megan Metheney, Arizona-born and currently based in southern France. This is the longest of the three versions, in time span much more than the other two combined; this is mainly due to Metheney’s use of an extended introduction with a plangent Celtic charm, which is used between verses and then as a postlude. Her outline of the original is kept simple with only single note accompaniment, the treatment notable for the employment of hemiolas at the words Westward leading, still proceeding. In its effect, this is a more adventurous and challenging We Three Kings than the preceding two pieces; it gives the performer more material to deal with, even if it’s a more simple construct in terms of requisite performance skills.

Beggs takes the first violin line for a strophe of the Pachelbel, then veers off into the carol while the harp maintains the chord sequence of the canon. After a stanza, the flute leaves the carol and joins the harp in playing variants on the canon. Eventually, the flute returns to the carol tune while the harp moves into the bar 19 demi-semiquaver variation of Pachelbel. Eventually, the carol disappears, so that not much of a fusion is achieved. That said, the performance is eloquent and mercifully lacking in affectation or effects.

Something like the Metheney carol treatment, Jason Reeve’s realization of the popular (in Australia) William James piece uses an introduction that is brought back between verses (three by my count) and winds up proceedings. The melody is left intact; the harmonic structure veers from the original only a few times; there is one mini-cadenza but it weaves neatly into the piece’s forward motion. This track is as long as the Metheney and also doesn’t wear out its welcome too much.

Track 11 brings you smack bang up against the brilliance that Britten demonstrated in the strangest places. In this CD’s context, the Interlude strikes you as ideally conceived for the harp, exemplifying the instrument’s fragility, transparency, rapidity and resonant majesty. Dealing with a wealth of timbres in this brief set of pages is only one facet of the score, which follows its bass string-heavy central passage with a reminiscence of the work’s opening Hodie. Even now, after so many years of acquaintance through great performances and others at the so-so level, this interpolation still strikes me as inspired and affecting. Reeve makes light of the demands from opening and closing harmonics, through thunderous octave bass notes alternating with biting chords, to the soft glissando washes across the last bars. And, marvellously, she keeps to a steady tempo throughout.

You can find little fault with the Ave Maria interpretation. Begge doesn’t overdo the vibrato and Reeve is modesty personified with the klavier original. Both artists might have avoided the tendency to indulge in a slight pause at the start of each phrase; the flute can cope easily enough with this cantilena without needing continual assistance. Likewise, Springthorpe’s handling of Jesus, Jesus rest your head is plain with only a few rushes of blood to line-ignoring descant. But the gentle tune is allowed to follow its path with minimal interruption – chorus, verse, chorus, and that’s it, Reeve employing a gentle rubato at the right places.

For the last track, Cater takes all us faithful on a pleasant enough ride to Latin America, turning the most well-known of carols into a well-behaved rhumba – well, that’s what I thought it was as it reminded me inescapably of Arthur Benjamin’s most famous work. Cater begins with a catchy motive based on the opening phrase which she repeats at various registers before starting on the tune proper. She exercises her native right to freedom of expression by adding extra bars in the O come, let us adore Him choruses and some of the chord progressions can surprise. But you cannot fault the sensibility that avoids the usual triumphalism, Reeve simply petering out into the treble ether. It makes a sensitively couched ending to this controlled, expertly accomplished CD.