LIGHT IN DARK
Move Records MD 3465
One of the oddest anthologies I’ve come across, this CD features all the (till-now) known piano solo music by Tom Henry, a Melbourne-based composer who began his career path as a flautist before changing to the more idealistic, top-of-the-class transcendental role of a composer. He has an ideal interpreter in Enchelmaier who lavishes her skills on rich and poor alike – or perhaps it would be better to distinguish between the junior and the elder, the tyro and the proficient, the smooth and the rough. What is apparent is that Henry travelled through a not-uncommon creative trajectory that began with imitations of the masters, then switched overnight to a cracker-jack contemporary style which takes the wind out of your sails through its stark contrast.
But then, this vault between light and dark (you choose) is not at all clear-cut. Enchelmaier begins with 14 pieces stretching from 2003 to 2006. They come in various groups: three Songs without words (2003-2006), three Studies for modern times (2005) and three Ecstatic preludes from that same year, a slightly puzzling brace from the composer’s 2006 Pieces for children (originally three in number, but A Funny Game has been omitted – hence the descriptor here of From ‘Pieces for children’). Then there are the Three short pieces for piano of 2005 which take on the function of a midriff punch after what we’ve heard so far because they sound like Webern of the Variations for Piano alternating with Schoenberg of the Drei Klavierstucke. And these lead into the Piano Sonata No. 1, written for Michael Kieran Harvey and an excellent vehicle for that pianist/composer’s scintillating skills. This is followed by the forward-leaning Three pieces for piano of 2010, and the one-movement Piano Sonata No. 2 written four years ago and less elliptical than its predecessor in the form from 2006.
We start with the Ecstatic preludes No. 1 – Like an omen. Well it’s ominous enough, taking its opening cell – a clipped, falling interval – and putting it through some unremarkable, post-Rachmaninov harmonic changes. No, not so much ominous; more, a prophecy emanating from a Tarot reading. Sensual and languid depends for its mood-setting on surging scales that aren’t allowed to take over the message which is a carefully circumscribed melody that suggests the eroticism of Saint-Saens. Finally, Calm and flowing presents as something of a study for the right hand which reserves its melodic interest for the middle two notes of every quaver group of four; as I’ve mentioned before, this is written in a style that suggests Rachmaninov but without the surprises, harmonic or lyrically transporting.
Pop song is the first of the Studies for modern times; not too modern, I’d suggest, as its language is lush and harmonically too subtle for anything I’ve heard from the gutter-mouthed rappers that captured the imaginations of my students and too frisky in its instrumental range to compete with the musical debris that spews from my gym’s sound-system. Not to mention that the vocal range required to sing this piece would be beyond the abilities of anyone currently performing on any ‘pop’ stage. The death of Pope John Paul II prompted April 2005 which manages to sound optimistic and elegiac at the same time. Henry imposes a fair amount of bell-ringing on us with a running scale figure doing the peals while a few chorale-suggestive figures range across the keyboard; it’s not La cathedrale engloutie (the pace is too rapid for Debussy’s lush washes) but the liturgical suggestions are there for those unkind enough to find them. And the composer’s forging along an harmonically conservative path seems right in line with the heritage (such as it remains) of Karol Wojtyla. Last in this set, Film theme suggested all sorts of possibilities. It’s got a rolling undercurrent of left-hand arpeggiations and a ‘noble’ tune in block chords that proposes all sorts of visual equivalents – the Australian bush but not too far west of the Great Dividing Range, a Mary Tyler Moore family drama, Avatar 3 in its pictorial obviousness, perhaps even a Big Sur Buddhism scenario in a cleaned-up Kerouac setting.
From ‘Pieces for Children’ involves A sad story and Barcarolle. You might find signs of Schumann here, although Mendelssohn is more the go despite some harmonic slips and slides. The story has a melancholy fluency to it but it could be played at sight by a reasonably competent pianist; Enchelmaier spices the outline with clever phrasing and sympathetic dynamics. As for the Venetian scene, you look in vain for any complexities; the pulse is regular and the right hand melodic outline is not distinctive enough to distract from the piece’s lack of adventure or colour, despite some sudden swerves into a new tonality – for a moment.
Henry admits to a collegiality with Mendelssohn in introducing his Songs without words and the three small-frame works share a certain picturesque reflectiveness with the German composer’s miniatures. Remembrance is upper-level lounge music with a wealth of added 7th chords and a definite lyrical shape; I was distracted by an odd resemblance in the work’s emotional character to Joseph Kosma’s Autumn Leaves – not that there’s anything wrong with that. More blues-inflected chord work emerges in Nocturne, a simple ternary shape with a very long central section (in relation to its surrounds) but the initial flourish is attractive enough to tolerate repetitions. New York comes over as a sort of ambling promenade not that far removed from Loved Walked In but bedevilled by its unchanging movement of block chords, occasionally spiced up with some arpeggiations; it’s certainly a very benign view of a city that I found menacing and unpleasant, by day and by night.
Now we come to the split where Henry’s compositional language turns into the second half of the 20th century. Following his studies with Lawrence Whiffin (or probably during that time), Henry produced Three short pieces for piano which are aphoristic in terms of length (in particular the last Molto allegro) and unpredictable in terms of rhythm and harmony which is emphatically atonal and probably 12-tone although you can hear repeated notes and motifs that would disrupt strict application of the rules. All of a sudden, the listener has to cope with an abstract set of soundscapes, starting with an Andante of tight-lipped stringency, followed by a Piu agitato that is my pick of the three for its expressive range and technical dexterity. Aficionados of the Second Viennese School will find plenty of reminiscences in these all-too-brief essays.
Henry wrote his Piano Sonata No. 1 in 2006 and revised it in 2011; a fascinating fact although it’s difficult to know what to do with it. As it comes across on this CD, the composer’s style-world has moved on from brief bursts of a 1920s vintage to short explosions of a 1950s/60s Boulez/Stockhausen variety – at least for the sonata’s scene-setting Theme which looks on paper like one of the Klavierstucken: ultra-refined dynamic markings, glancing shots before a sustained crotchet or minim, subdivisions of rhythm like a quintuplet that’s as much rests as it is notes, leaps of 7ths and 9ths: the whole panoply of serialized physical jerks, although, as I say, I don’t think the principles are being applied in too doctrinaire a fashion.
The following Variations movement is probably divided into six sections, their material emanating from the thematic material of Movement 1. You can find common intervallic vaults, I suppose, but the music is chameleonic and, despite the divisions, its progress is continuous. Also, Henry is fond of the direction recitativo; that gives his interpreter all the leeway necessary to handle whimsical creative flights as she pleases. In fact, most of these sectional indicators aren’t that helpful to the ear: what Henry calls Molto calmo e ritmato requires a large amount of creative listening, as does quasi una Habanera and, later, Violente. However, you can take pleasure in the pockets of high-pitched pointillism across this variations sequence, as well as Henry’s ear for the dramatic gesture and the pointed repetition.
The finale , Molto perpetuo, presents in two versions: one where the linear rhythmic values are prescribed, the other a sort of breakdown into consecutive quavers. Whichever one you pick, the results follow a different vocabulary to that obtaining in the preceding two movements. It winds up being diatonic in character towards the end after a moderately athletic main body. At times, I was reminded of an old-time passacaglia where the bass is emphatic and definitely placed while quavers follow their predictable path on top. In fact, about half-way through, the texture is satisfyingly complex with three layers in full operation. But this is not your usual perpetual motion rush as Enchelmaier exercises plenty of rubato and dramatic emphases, especially in the last minute where the work seeks the security of a tonal resolution, This you can receive as a haven or a restoration of the natural order; or you can wonder why, after showing mastery of a contemporary compositional style, the work peters out in a kind of surrender to the tonic.
Which is why the interest arises in the direction of Henry’s revision of 2011. In this form, the work is lopsided and I wonder whether the Moto perpetuo is part of the original or an addition (or transformation?). Or take it the other way: that the last movement is a survivor and the Theme and Variations attest to the composer’s adoption of advanced techniques in his compositional address.
Another surprise comes with the Three Pieces for Piano which seem to be homages in their different ways. Henry acknowledges the influence of earlier writers in his Intermezzo: an attractive expressionist soundscape with some lush writing of considerable warmth interrupted by piercing outbursts of temperament and a quiet tonal ending with a faint echo of the last chord in Berg’s Sonata – a bit fanciful as a comparison but not impossible. The CD’s title track is a series of episodes that opens with two factors in operation – a chorale, and surrounding decorations both high and low; this disintegrates in several ways, the main ones being an assumption of importance by the colourful material at either end of the keyboard, and an incorporation of the chords into a faster-moving stage of activity. It’s an odd combination of restlessness and steady progress, but it eventually finds a quiet subterranean resting-place. Last, Henry’s Toccata also acknowledges the past, specifically Prokofiev whose hefty 1912 gem is echoed here, and I think you can also detect a smidgen of Khatchaturian although Henry sticks with a regular pulse of quadruple-time semiquavers without any relieving triplets such as the Armenian introduced into his flashy pseudo-virtuosity. Again, Enchelmaier avoids martellato continuity and leavens the movement forward with a pliant ritenuto or four.
The latest of Henry’s piano solo endeavours, his Piano Sonata No. 2 was commissioned for a 50th birthday and is based on the name (most of it), represented in musical notes, of the celebrater. This piece follows the composer’s studying with Stuart Greenbaum, Head of Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Certainly, you can hear a change in approach here, more in line with the harmonic smoothness in the Moto perpetuo ending the Piano Sonata No. 1 but, despite the homogeneity acquired by using the name-motif as fundamental, the work still impresses as episodic. So it’s not really your old-time sonata form at play here but more like a rondo. And that doesn’t really get to the heart of the business because the apparent wholescale reversions are few in number.
For instance, the sonata opens with a stately theme set out a an octave or two, this sentence moving with an effective stateliness, even grace. That rhythmic movement then changes abruptly to a gambolling bucolic episode, somewhere between Vaughan Williams and Bartok at his least acerbic. Here Henry sets up a pattern of rising and falling scales in both hands that takes over his forward thrust; these are especially noticeable in pages where the right hand carries out its ups and downs while the left hand generates chords that follow a scale progression, albeit more slowly. Mind you, the derivation of this developmental matter from that opening cell is clear as day. Not sure about what follows when an arresting trill leads into Ondine land with some voluptuous colour washes giving way to a return of the bucolic skipping toned down and the scales are replaced by ‘open’ arpeggios in the right hand that reach a highpoint about half-way through the sonata. Another bucolic trace element and a richly Romantic meditation with a spectral recurrence of the opening noble striding in arpeggiated format before we enter the last lap with Henry employing a falling interval as his calm farewell to arms.
It’s here that Enchelmaier comes further into the picture by singing this two-note phrase to the ejaculation He-ya in a concordance with her piano part. This vocal line involves both a rising and falling minor third in alternation, then rising and falling perfect 5ths. According to Henry, the intention is to accentuate an intended atmosphere of meditative stasis, and it kind of achieves that end in a coda that even revisits the countryside, albeit in slow motion, before the movement slows to a definite ending, despite its ephemeral dynamic. You might have expected, after pages that exercise a kind of impressionism in their harmonic ambiguity, that Henry might leave us with an added-note chord, reinforcing the unfinished nature of spiritual experiences. But no: when Enchelmaier breathes her last rising murmur in a space where words have no substance, the sonata resolves onto a minor chord with no interrogatory accretions.
You have to take your hat off to Henry who reveals every part of his achievements on this disc; it’s not a Greatest Hits selection but the entire oeuvre that he has written (so far) for solo piano. He shows us his beginnings with a late (and sometimes middle) 19th century bent, using the conventions of that time (in fact, there’s rather a lot of these pieces, as they take over half-an hour of the CD’s 72 minutes’ length); then comes the abrupt shift to a world of technique-shaking demands familiar to us survivors of the challenges promulgated by Bussotti, Berio and Kagel (not to mention the apparent insanities committed to manuscript by Pousseur and Ferneyhough); finally, it’s an arrival at the ‘new lyricism’ where ev’ry compositional mountain and hill is made low. All of this makes for a refreshing, wholesome hejira, one that is probably not completed. Along his path, Henry has been gifted with a sympathetic and conscientious interpreter who exerts her considerable interpretative craft across each of these 21 tracks.