Fraser Thomas Williams
. . . FOR SONJA
Move Records MCD 517
Two different CDs here, as far as pretty every point of comparison goes. One is an amateur product, in both imagination and execution; the other comes from a one-time senior Melbourne academic and pianist with a wide performance spectrum. Fraser Thomas Williams was a Kyabram dairy farmer for half a century with deep ties to his local community In his senior years, Williams’ family has urged him to record some of his own compositions before they are forgotten; he has done so in a suite of eight miniatures on a disc that takes us into an oddly familiar home-grown territory, reminiscent of middle-grade AMEB piano books of many years ago. Gould’s re-issue from 2015 commemorates a friend, Sonja Krawatt, who died a decade ago; he bookends his ten tracks with original pieces named for Sonja Krawatt, while the remainder are arrangements of Jewish folk-tunes and melodies, with one exception – John Williams’ title theme for the Spielberg film Schindler’s List.
Both CDs offer accessible music on a small scale. Williams’ eight pieces combined last a little over ten minutes, while Gould’s offering falls a bit short of 42 minutes. While Gould’s treatments feature titles that are familiar to plenty of Jewish/Yiddish music aficionados – Tum balalaika, Raisins and almonds, At the fireplace – Williams aims, for the most part, to depict his farming life in Morning Showers, Looking Out, and Beauty All Around. The first of these, for instance, is a simple construct in ternary shape, 6/8 in its pulse, and with no chords – just a line per hand, played with some rubato but not over-sentimental. It sets the pace for what follows in being easy to assimilate, free from any complexities, complete in its own quiet parameters. Rather than following this pattern exactly, Looking Out takes an original motif and provides it with a series of melodic complements. Again, the texture is mainly note against note and the harmony firmly diatonic, but the looking process is slightly varied each time Williams casts his musical glance.
Christmas on the Spot was written for a family get-together for which the composer’s wife had no time to prepare for a proper piano duet, so her husband gave her a one-note left-hand accompaniment while he played a tune on top – for this piece, in chords. The oddest thing is that the opening phrase immediately calls to mind a popular Christmas song from the 1940s that I can’t trace. At all events, this track has a substantial coda relative to the rest of the content. Being Young presents as a more mildly exploratory piece with a well-exposed melody, although the rhythmic pattern – left hand three notes, then right hand three notes – is unbroken in its regularity. Still, it makes an impression of youthful mobility and, at the same time, nostalgia, especially in the first part’s reprise.
Beauty All Around begins unnervingly with an arpeggio left-hand figure that in its shape brings to mind Schumann/Liszt’s Widmung. But Williams’ melody is more orderly and less inclined to modulate beyond well-circumscribed bounds. This is one of the more substantial tracks on the disc; not simply in terms of length, but in the overall texture of the work which once again follows the composer’s preferred A-B-A framework. As for its significance, the piece proposes a view of beauty that is essentially harmonious and mobile, its aesthetic aspiring rather than static. Following this, The Williams Family is a fast hymn with an A-A-B-A format, its melody a well-crafted lyric with a four-square shape that has suggestions of both American revivalist hymns and Australian folk-songs (which, it seems to me, are inevitable revenants of British, Irish and Scottish melodies). What qualities does it suggest about the family? Straightforward, rural, appealingly calm – you can find all this in Williams’ placid memorial.
Sweet Mystery is the most salonesque of the reflections, with a melodic line that oscillates between bass and treble. Rather like Looking Out, this work has a certain unpredictability; you recognize the main motive/phrase, but Williams is not always following the party line as to where it leads. Certainly, the harmonic language is more advanced than in the first four tracks. Finally, Listening In takes its impetus from the composer’s three hearing aids, each of them sounding an individual note each time Williams puts them on. Another ternary piece, it shows a harmonic deftness, mainly at deviation-from-the-expected moments, which adds a gentle piquancy to the last in this miniature suite which is not difficult music but which speaks with an unselfconscious ease and buoyancy.
Gould begins his title track with a gentle meditative walk showing hints of Jewish tropes, including the repetitious shape of certain sequential phrases, the gentlest of intermediary seventh cords,, and suggestions of minor-inflected modes. Cellist Imogen Manins joins in for two interludes. The final track, Encore Sonja, treats the same material as this opening For Sonja, but it’s not simply a copy; rather, its character is more meditative and, to my mind, more introverted, as well as being substantially shorter . . . and all Gould, without Manins’ mellow line. Both tracks are character pieces, I suppose, in the 19th century manner, reminiscent of the mini-essays of Mendelssohn and Grieg, but couched in a placid, ruminative voice that has something of a lament about it, but the grieving is muted and non-demonstrative.
At the fireplace brings Manins back to play the lyric itself, followed by Adam Simmons working through a variant of the tune on what sounds like a saxophone even though he is billed on the CD cover as performing clarinet. Manins returns for a restatement, and finally both instruments perform the rhythmically elliptical tune together with Gould underpinning the process through an accompaniment that begins promisingly but settles into gentle predictability. Simmons returns in the next track, Let us all together, to explore his inner klezmer with lots of ‘bent’ notes, a bit of over-blowing and some mini-glissandi; both he and Gould share the melody, Simmons at his most affecting when shadowing the tune and fading in and out during the process.
Manins and Simmons take the lead in Peace unto you, Gould occasionally raising his head above the parapet in this gentle stepping song. The performance is considered, quiet and, like most of the traditional material that Gould mines, surprises only mildly when it steps into a major key; you try not to, but your mind is drawn to memories of Fiddler on the Roof and the curves of Jerry Brock’s melodies. More central European in character than much else in this collection, Raisins and almonds brings Manins to the fore twice but Gould’s supple keyboard work holds your interest for its delicacy and rhythmic ambiguity, especially in the piece’s first half where the pulse is unpredictable.
The trio participates as an entity towards the end of Tum balalaika, during which Gould enjoys an extended solo, Manins outlines the tune both straight and elaborated, and Simmons offers the most subtle of interference plays in an episode following his own yawp-inflected solo handling of the theme, which appears clearly on both guest instruments in a final round-up. Rayzele isn’t a traditional song, as the CD sleeve index proposes, but a song with multiple verses by the Yiddish composer/lyricist Mordkhe Gebirtig. Gould gives us a solo piano track here, in which he treats the four-square tune with plenty of flexibility and some interesting detours, although nothing far from a well-beaten harmonic track. And he invests it with a placidity that isn’t quite compatible with the original’s forthrightness. Jewish mother is probably the least substantial of the disc’s contents, with Gould handling the introductions, then Simmons outlining the tune – one I haven’t heard before – on what could be a bass clarinet but still has sax suggestions – with Manins playing it again, the whole furnished with a supple coda featuring the two soloists pushing the sentiment in a partnership of cosy 6ths.
Gould’s treatment of the Schindler’s List theme is no-nonsense, he and Manins sustaining a steady metre throughout and avoiding any self-indulgent suggestions. Manins partners the pianist in a brooding introduction before taking up the famous melody that brings to mind the human cost that lies at the core of this remarkable film. Gould allows himself an interstitial elaboration before Manins returns to conclude the longest track on the disc which concludes with its highest cello notes.. I don’t know if Gould’s dedicatee had a connection to the Holocaust – it’s hard to find a Jewish citizen or relative in this country who was not affected, many in shattering ways – but this aching melody fits with unquestionable ease into its surroundings, fleshing out gracefully this affecting musical memento.