An unfamiliar voice emerges


Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra

Move Records MD 3448

It isn’t every day that you come across a local composer who has managed to get his work recorded by a well-known European orchestra, directed by a notable musician who has been active in Australia for many years. But that’s been the case for John Allan who has managed to achieve this fortunate outcome, one that is unfamiliar to many a better-known writer of serious music in this country. You’ll find seven tracks on this CD, two of them arrangements: Debussy’s La soiree dans Grenade, the central one of Debussy’s three Estampes; and the Scherzo from Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 1 in C, his Op. 1.

The original pieces begin with an Aeolian Caprice, which was initially a piano solo but, 15 years on, Allan decided to orchestrate it. One of the major works follows, a Fantasia on Mahler’s Purgatorio: a variant on the third movement from Mahler’s incomplete Symphony No. 10. At the centre of the disc sit three works with the Latin adjective ‘mirabile’ in their titles. The first, like Aeolian Caprice, began life as piano solo celebrating the birth of the composer’s daughter; it was orchestrated a year later, then revised six years after that. As well, there’s Mirabilia Antipodia of 2005 which offers variations on the original ‘mirabile’ theme. Finally, another one of four Allan works that use the same motif/theme, comes Marcia Mirabilis – written a year before Antipodia but revised several times since: in 2010, 2014 and 2017 . . . which makes it the most recently visited work of the seven. The whole lot adds up to a little less than 49 minutes of music.

When I see a title like Aeolian Caprice, I’m reminded of occasional pieces, post-Mendelssohn in character, for amateur pianists. Of course, the naming is ambiguous: it could refer to the Aeolian mode, or it could refer to the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily, or it might be suggesting the wind-driven Aeolian harp. It starts with a suggestion of everything; clarinet-led low melody, low brass following the same pattern, until an orchestral explosion of some power, even if the heftiness is over-bearing. Then comes a series of full-blown melodies, with something a bit odd about the ensemble chording for wind and brass; can’t put my finger on it but it seems very thick and imbalanced. As the work proceeds, the texture gets thicker, then cuts back to leave the violins weaving a spacious melody, which yields to a clumsy passage for wind and percussion.

By this stage the metrical pattern is well established: a swinging (slowly) triple metre which doesn’t endear itself by a lack of variety. In fact, the piece impresses as unsophisticated, the disposition of forces clumsy, the crescendo towards the final-bar climax elementary in style. It’s the earliest work on the disc, and you can tell. As for those worries about Aeolian, I’ve no idea at the end. Probably not the harp; the score’s opening has the faintest traces of Bax’s Tintagel, so maybe the Sicilian islands.

Allan’s Mahler essay follows. Its main feature is to change the time-signature: the original 2/4 goes by the board for a deliberately unbalancing 5/8. That aside, half of this track’s length – no, a bit more than that – follows the original framework pretty closely; that is to say, you can ‘follow’ the published score’s flow without difficulty. Naturally enough, Allan has imposed his own orchestration (who hasn’t?) and so the textures have only shadings of the original. But motives and bursts of melody are transferred between woodwind, for example, or even interchanged between brass and strings. Allan moves away from this a little after the 6 minute mark and manipulates Mahler’s material for the final three minutes.

To his credit, the new score stays close in material to what we have heard already – through a glass splintered – and the entire exercise has an undeniable coherence. But, as the Australian composer observes, the work is changed considerably, its emotional intent less apparent, and the sound fabric less incisive. The whole thing is a clear homage but you aren’t quite sure what has been accomplished here. Allan takes the wind out of your carping sails, however, by calling his score a fantasia – which allows him absolute freedom; the wonder is that he didn’t take more.

At the opening of the root work Mirabile, you are reminded of Delius: a melody slowly rises out of a brooding bass before that melody is pronounced clearly in a solo horn, the lyric shifting harmonically – just like those incessant Delian bass murmurings. As the work progresses, there are shades of Hollywood sound-tracks, with some broadly swelling climaxes and plenty of swoops and ascents for the Prague orchestra to enjoy. Eventually, we come to a broad tutti statement, loaded with swelling strings. But there is also a sort of astringency added to the smooth surface with an input line or two from woodwind and/or brass. The ending is a reinforcement of the score’s orthodox harmonic nature, a triumph of sentiment over spice.

You’d like to think that Mirabile Antipodia has reference to this side of the world – Australia Olympica – but it’s more probable that the reference is formal. Allan has here transposed the voluble ‘mirabile’ theme for this piece; no, more than transposed – he has inverted it in the best Baroque or Webern fashion. The results are more disturbing than in the original work, as the accompanying material has taken on a harmonic complexity that the original didn’t contain. I found the writing here to be more sinewy – or the music’s workings were more discernible and the harmonic language a good deal more complex, although Allan cannot avoid popular tropes, like the downward movement for brass a little after the 3-minute mark, and the following full-orchestral blasts that lead to a full-blown peroration of large proportions, something like Berg piling up his forces. The whole thing then suspends for a reminiscence of Tchaikovsky – the melody’s there, if the supporting surrounds are different – before reverting to several restatement’s of the inverted ‘mirabile’ and a big finale.

So, in a real sense, this is a converse piece which largely avoids the sweetness and predictability of the previous track. Even if Allan indulges again in the lush orchestral resources available to him, they are much more interesting in their application. You feel that his compositional development has resulted in more confidence as a manipulator of possibilities. Mind you, I still think the textures are over-full, despite an attempt to add sparks; a fair bit of the brass writing is pure weight, a mid-ensemble spread.

The march based on the ‘mirabile’ melody would drive any corps to revolt: it’s too slow for military use. Not that you’d take as a principle that all marches have to be marchable; now that Tchaikovsky’s been mentioned, I can think of three major marches from his pen that also don’t fit the regimental bill. In fact, there’s not a good deal to be said about Allan’s march. I eventually found the relevant theme in the content, mainly because its initial phrase is eventually repeated till even the meanest intelligence gets the picture. This is the longest track on this CD, twice as long as the preceding tracks using the same theme; ditto for the Aeolian escapade and the Debussy rescheduling.

There’s a certain pleasure to be found in this work which strikes me as often being a bit of a ramble, despite its jaunty nature which carries it across quite a few trio interpolations. Still, it is very diffuse and, despite the efforts of Kram and his players, it could have stopped several minutes before it actually reached its big finish. Perhaps, if the composer revisits it for a fourth time, he might consider a touch more lopping than grafting because the unavoidable feeling at its end is that all concerned were labouring at their work – not that you could find much here to exercise them unduly.

If you want a benchmark for happy Debussy transcriptions, it’s hard to look past Grainger’s marvellous and richly textured arrangement of Pagodes for harmonium and tuneful percussion which I’ve heard live only once – at a John Hopkins Prom in the Melbourne Town Hall, I seem to recall. It’s colour without self-consciousness. Allan’s reworking of the next Estampe, Evening in Granada, is an orthodox piece of work in which most of the intervening chord work (bars 17-20, in the first instance) is scored in pragmatic fashion, even if the Prague players are not exact in their chord weighting. Also, I was pleased that the arranger took his time before introducing the inevitable castanets (bar 33). The horns came across as far too prominent in the Tres rythme segment; the piccolo at bar 98 was inaccurate; both Leger et lointain sections were far too slow; and surely the G sharp at bar 112 has to resolve two bars later.

Brahms’ scherzo is heavy in its humour, even in the piano original which I recently heard from one of the Sydney International Piano Competition entrants. Allan can’t do much to perk up its weightiness, although he comes close to it across the outer section’s reappearance. To his credit, he tries everything, not just content to make one version and leave it to be repeated; he’s re-scoring wherever you look. The only time anything is really unstuck is in the Trio where the chord at bar 13 – especially its top B flat – is bloated and painful to hear. Against that put the clever re-thinks that came up to revitalise your interest and you can be grateful to Allan for carrying off pretty well what many of us would have considered to be a thankless task.

An intriguing enterprise, this CD. It sounds as if David Kram and his Czech musicians could have gained more certainty from further rehearsal, as Allan could have benfited from the luxury of altering his orchestration at leisure after hearing it. But I admire the effort involved in getting the whole thing recorded and giving us the chance to make the acquaintance of this composer and his catalogue. What we have here is a small sample of his actual output, but it’s something to be going on with while we wait for the larger-framed scores to emerge – possibly from Kram and the biddable Praguers.

Posted in CD