Move Records MD 3454
Eve Duncan has been a strong force in Australian Music for many years; not just as a composer but also as a teacher and administrator. By this last term, I don’t mean a career-conscious functionary snuffling out a life in some university departmental office, but as a servitor of this country’s composers, principally as founder of the Melbourne Composers League and as a participant in enterprises like the Asian Composers League and director of Federation Music Week when we all decided in 2001 to celebrate a century since the legislated and constitutional combining of states. And we can all see these days how well that turned out.
On this CD, Duncan is chiefly represented by two major works: her 2012 piano concerto in two movements called Sydney Opera House, and excerpts from her opera The Aspern Papers, with a libretto by David Malouf extracted from the Henry James novella. This latter is one of the many products of the American writer’s fertile and prolix imagination with which I am totally unfamiliar. Like all opera-lovers, I know The Turn of the Screw, once upon a time even going back to read the original as a method of assessing Myfanwy Piper‘s skill in transforming the original into something simpler for the composer. Again, like all opera-lovers, I don’t know anything of Britten’s other James incursion, Owen Wingrave, which was also arranged for Aldeburgh consumption by Piper.
Apart from these well-known James-indebted operas, I’m completely ignorant about Douglas Moore‘s The Wings of the Dove 1961 adaptation, Thea Musgrave‘s 1974 The Voice of Ariadne (rising from the bones of The Last of the Valerii), Thomas Pasatieri‘s Washington Square of 1976, and two other treatments of The Aspern Papers by Dominick Argento in 1987 and Philip Hagemann in 1988. I once heard Donald Hollier‘s version of Washington Square – The Heiress – in its premiere performance by ChamberMade at The Church Theatre in Hawthorn, some time in November 1988; not a rack remains behind. And, in another life, I’ve taught The Europeans but it remains as vague in the memory as an ill-advised assault on The Golden Bowl.
This CD opens with Approaching Venice, which is the prelude to Duncan’s opera. Later, we are treated to a duet – I told you, Mr. Vayne, nothing here is mine; a soprano aria, Do you think I am beautiful?; another couple of duets – Ah, but I do know his face, and Juliana and Jeffrey’s Love Duet; to end, a pair of trios – So this is the dragon’s den, and If you were a relation. These extracts take a little over half the CD’s running time, with a bit of space left for some short instrumental solos: Deep in Summer for trumpet and piano, From a Star Afar for piano solo, and Aer Turas for flute, clarinet and cello.
Adding to the complexity of these several tracks, Duncan has found inspiration and/or structure for many of them in architecture – Utzon’s bastardized masterpiece for the concerto, Palladio and the Venetian environment (somehow) for the operatic fragments. As well, the aria is internally referencing Korean court music on the underlying principle that Venice traded with the Far East. Does any of this help to clarify what we hear? I’ve tried to find connections but don’t have the requisite responsiveness or nimbleness of intellect, not even finding reminiscences of the city’s alleys in the singers’ intertwining lines. Still, over the past five decades I’ve spent only a few days during three visits in penetrating the city’s labyrinthine back-blocks, frequently getting lost, and so am under-prepared for Duncan’s compositional grids.
As an introduction to her opera, Duncan presents an optimistic and healthy view of the city; rather at odds with the unpleasant plot of the novella which involves greed, theft and monomania. The mobility of the cityscape is evident with plenty of rustling strings and brief tuckets, swift trombone glissandi, with some unsettling timpani as a tidal underpinning. Throughout, the emphasis is on action, or at least an active scenario is anticipated even before the curtain rises. Cymbal crashes add to the aura of sparkling light and, despite its sometimes grinding harmonic clusters, the overture’s conclusion is set in a bright brass-dominated major. No adagietto here as your boat crawls up the lagoon but a brightly coloured atmosphere, performed by the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Josefino Chino Toledo – and how that came about, I’ve no idea.
Next come the two parts of Duncan’s piano concerto with Michael Kieran Harvey investing his brilliance in its solo part. He is supported by an unspecified chamber orchestra conducted by ‘Timothy Philips’, who I assume is Timothy Phillips, director of the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble. In any case, the work was recorded by the ABC in the Salon of the Melbourne Recital Centre in 2016 – as were the six vocal excerpts from The Aspern Papers and the trumpet-piano duet.
Duncan begins her score with a semi-cadenza for piano which sets up another rustling soundscape with occasional interpolations from others – percussion, single brass and woodwind, a band of strings. The aim is to focus on Utzon: in Movement 1, he focus is directed to his influences and background as well as what can only be styled as his construction’s topography which the composer has used as a kind of palimpsest. You can pick out motifs and gestures, especially as the orchestral contribution expands, but the work’s impetus is left in the pianist’s hands. To be honest, the score tends to fade into effort when the keyboard is silent – which is fortunately rare. Harvey is quite at home with his peripatetic role, sounding more comfortable than the supporting ensemble, despite some startlingly lucid and confident contributions from clarinet and percussion.
Movement 2 opens with more collegiality as Duncan weaves her orchestra-based scintillations, suggestive of the Opera House site and surrounds. In what follows, the Utzon/piano figure is well-integrated with the other musicians and the texture takes on an Ivesian style of agglomeration before Harvey re-asserts his dominance momentarily at the half-way point. Apparently, this part of the concerto treats the architect’s interior world, the realization of his project being brought up short against the realities of New South Wales politics of the time: an apotheosis of philistinism. Utzon can be discerned putting his head above the parapet but is all too often swamped by the orchestral fabric and some wearing outbursts.
The score would doubtless yield more treasures than those discovered in the few hearings I’ve given it but staying on Duncan’s compositional continuum is very difficult. You can find many reflections of your own attitudes to both Utzon and the Opera House, although it’s more than probable that where I find suggestions of the relentless criticism – by troglodytes from both major political parties – that dogged the architect’s last years on the project, others will hear more benign forces at work, reflecting the industry involved in its protracted construction and the brilliant juxtaposition of the building, harbour and city in what has become a splendid national cliche over its 48-year history.
Harvey appears on the following duo track, with Tristram Williams playing trumpet. This work moves with an energy that relaxes only in its final bars, both instruments handling a limited number of motives to happy effect. As far as the work’s language goes, Duncan walks a kind of middle road between complexity and sophisticated simplicity where even the dissonances aim to strike few sparks and suggestions of tonal underpinning loom large. As anticipated, Harvey performs the solo From a Star Afar with admirable sympathy, the underlying vision here being of observing Earth from outside itself. No tricks as the piece winds its way along with a kind of calm determination – but it’s over very quickly, coming in at under 90 seconds.
The first of the opera extracts is sung by soprano Justine Anderson as Miss Tita and baritone Jerzy Kozlowski taking the role of Henry Vayne, the work’s fulcrum and a shady negotiator who is attempting to acquire memorabilia left by the dead poet Jeffrey Aspern. In the original, this character has no name but opera tends to collapse if anonymity is the go. The two singers engage in a dialogue where each is feeling his/her way into a relationship; it’s all very civilised and artificial with the chamber orchestra giving an appropriate pattering support. The vocal articulation is agreably clear and accurate but few demands are made on anybody. Still, it’s early days.
Soprano Deborah Kayser has the role of Juliana Bordereau, lover of the poet and now a century old vendor in need of money. She mocks Vayne by asking him if he finds her beautiful and sings of her past with something approaching rhapsody, although Kayser has to cope with some tough competition, including a persistent trumpet. Still, you can hear the shaping of a real character, a distant relation to Miss Havisham; the only problems come in Kayser’s breathing as she copes with an angular line.
In the next duet, the old woman shows Vayne a portrait of Aspern, painted by her father, which she might be prepared to sell if the price is right. Even while making the offer, she knows her visitor can’t afford it and appears to take some malefic delight in this realization. Again, Kayser is occasionally menaced by a heavy accompaniment but my main interest is wondering how this scene would be carried off, especially in its later pages where the orchestral contribution is intended (I believe) to be a commentary on the two characters’ mental/emotional states. Next comes a duet of sorts for Juliana and the shade of Aspern, sung by countertenor Dan Walker; well, he’s chronicled as owning that voice type but his sound here was really your normal tenor. The text consisted of both artists singing the other’s name, once more over a turbulent orchestral force. Well, the old lady is dying and Aspern is a ghost; nevertheless, the results are unconvincing; as they say on The Bachelor: what you can’t hear, you can’t feel.
Vayne and Miss Tita search Juliana’s room for Aspern’s letters, but the old lady wakes up from her delirium and denounces Vayne as she dies. Much of this is comprehensible and becomes a real duet while Kayser is confined to forcing out some low-pitched fulminations at the scene’s end. But Duncan does present her characters with skill here; when they sing, they have definite personalities, no matter how distorted or unpleasant they may be. As the crisis approaches, the instrumental forces take over with insistent energy. Oddly enough, the track ends on a tierce – possibly because Vayne has fled the scene.
Finally, Miss Tita asks Vayne to marry her; then he can have the papers in good conscience. He turns over the proposition but is too slow in responding and the deal falls through, whereupon she burns the papers. In a final trio, Juliana revives to carol with the two non-lovers in a calmly flowing retrospective, I suppose; the words are hard to make out, although the final word is a communal Respiro statement – patently not true for one character. I’m assuming this is the opera’s last scene; if so, matters wind down swiftly in a soft lyrical glow.
As far as I can detect, this ABC recording of the six extracts from The Aspern Papers – from October 26, 2016 – is the only time even parts of the opera have been performed in this country. The Australian Music Centre site suggests that a performance took place in Manila a year previously, but that occasion in all probability featured only the overture, Track 1 on this CD. Will we be likely to hear a complete performance at any time soon? Probably not, particularly considering the parlous state of contemporary Australian music in 2021, let alone the fits and starts that beset the larger, tradition-minded companies. A pity, because Duncan’s work has its advantages: its language easily assimilable, its characterization lucid, demands on vocalists and instrumentalists (a chamber group here, conducted by Phillips) falling well inside the competence of professionals.
Finally comes Aer Turas, which translates from the Gaelic as ‘air journey’. This is a reminiscence of travel to four sites: the monasteries of Leh, Tibet; North America’s Appalachians, particularly Mount Washington; the MacDonnell Ranges that lie in the southern reaches of the Northern Territory; and Wollemi National Park stretching from the Blue Mountains to the Hunter. Our participating trio – flute Lisa Breckenridge, clarinet Ian Sykes, cello Claire Kahn – travel with effortless collegiality through this piece which, I think, treats each of the specified destinations in turn; doing so with a deft alternation between curlicuing solos and disciplined ensemble writing.
In essence, this all represents a mini-retrospective of Duncan’s activity, bridging from 2012 (the Sydney Opera House concerto) to 2018 (Aer Turas and From a Star Afar). But its temporally cramped recording conditions – everything taped on the same day, apart from Approaching Venice, the piano solo and that final instrumental trio – indicate how difficult it is for a serious composer to be heard. Of course, the results here are blemished but that’s the cost of getting one chance at performing. However, this CD is commended to those who have sympathy with Australian composition, especially of a type that follows an approachable middle ground and avoids attention-seeking novelty for its own sake.