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Striking Originality

Chamber music by
Roger Smalley -
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'... the performance may be regarded as definitive.'

Through a Glass Darkly - Roger Smalley Chamber Works. © 2008 Melba Recordings

Within Through a Glass Darkly, Anglo-Australian composer Roger Smalley displays the all-too-rare gift of calling upon nineteenth century European masters, transmuting their (selected) Romantic elements with a theoretician's craftsmanship and emerging from the process with three agreeable, up-to-the-minute chamber works of tonal and striking originality.

Moreover, Through a Glass Darkly is yet another triumph for Melba Recordings; the performers' excellence, peerless sound engineering and refined design-production lend this entire album inestimable added value.

In 1990-91 Smalley set to work on a succession of chamber works for which the opening bars of Chopin's Mazurka in B flat minor, Op 24 No 4, proved to be a catalyst. Smalley's piano quartet Crepuscule -- 15 Variations on a Theme of Brahms (1998-99) intervened, followed by the trio, quartet and quintet heard here.

The composer explains: 'The works are unified in that they are all based on deconstructed fragments of music by Chopin and Brahms. This also means that they all, in their ways, grapple with the problem of the reintegration of tonality, a problem which I found creatively very stimulating.'

If you find that sounds academic and off-putting, let me allay your fears -- the music here is intriguing, persuasive, and abundantly more-ish.

Melba has the most recent work (Piano Quintet -- 2003) placed first; then, from a little earlier (Trio for horn, violin and piano -- 2000-2002), and finally, penned at the turn of the century, (String Quartet No 2 -- 1999-2000).

The 2nd Quartet's development out of motives derived from a fragment of Chopin's Mazurka in C minor, Op 56, No 3 (bars 181-189) is so indissolubly fashioned -- with sustained legatos, outspoken glissandi, lyrical interludes, forward driving passages, quasi rhapsodic statements, discursive agitated passage-work (etc) -- that I felt an eagerness to return to it for a growing acquaintance. And how beautifully the quartet ends -- from 16'28" and finally after 17'03".

Listen -- String Quartet No 2
(track 8, 17:03-18:53) © 2008 Melba Recordings

In marked contrast to the quartet and quintet Smalley's three movement Horn Trio has no direct historical associations. Its opening movement (Allegro energico) is based on a twelve-tone row looking ahead to the third movement (Allegro molto). Here the overriding moody is busy and quirky.

Listen -- Allegro energico (Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano)
(track 5, 0:00-0:53) © 2008 Melba Recordings

An intervening 10+ minute movement (titled Mirror variations) is precisely as the name suggests. The solo violin theme and variation for both horn and violin are eventually fused as a chorale for piano.

Smalley recounts beginning the finale as an attempt to recompose the 1st movement in tonal terms; a plan from which he ultimately deviated. His own notes sketch in the thought processes he went through en route.

Listen -- Allegro molto (Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano)
(track 7, 0:01-1:26) © 2008 Melba Recordings

The trio was commissioned by Melba's horn soloist, Darryl Poulsen, currently Head of School and Director of Brass Studies at the School of Music, University of Western Australia. Together with the composer (piano) and violinist Paul Wright, student at the Yehudi Menuhin School, Guildhall (London) and Juilliard; the performance may be regarded as definitive.

As long ago as 1962 influential American composer Charles Wuorinen (born 1938) said 'most of the Europeans claim they have "gone beyond" and "exhausted" the twelve-tone system. But in America, the twelve-tone system has been carefully studied and generalized into an edifice more impressive than any hitherto known.'

Certainly what many concertgoers regard as 'twelve-tone terrors' are obviated where they're incorporated by Smalley.

The Piano Quintet begins with a brief, compelling, forward-driving, gripping, and notably individualistic 'Overture'. Bernstein would have delighted in it.

Listen -- Overture (Piano Quintet)
(track 1, 0:00-0:40) © 2008 Melba Recordings

Even shorter, the 'Intermezzo' has a recipe including the halting tread of the piano, snatches of pizzicato and col legno, and a tangled, capricious skein of piano and strings.

The propulsive, overtly ebullient Scherzo hurtles along with little respite yet within its compact 4'40" the finely balanced structure lends it a character rare over so brief a span.

A 'Chaconne with Variations' is at the ground zero of Smalley's innovative 'Quintet' -- a movement of dazzling beauty and deep, communicative inwardness; it combines logic, complexity and rare calm.

Listen -- Chaconne with Variations (Piano Quintet)
(track 4, 4:58-6:49) © 2008 Melba Recordings

Faultlessly engineered with a judicious, intimate balance at all three locations; Perth Concert Hall (Quintet), Winthrop University Hall, Perth (Trio) and ABC Studio, Adelaide (Quartet), this stunning Melba release combines the composer's imprimatur and his glittering pianist's expertise.

In short, Through a Glass Darkly is mandatory ensemble for chamber music aficionados; a win-win release on all counts.

The Grainger Quartet, re-named after eccentric Australian composer Percy Grainger (1882-1961) comprises violinists Natsuko Yoshimoto and James Cuddeford, violist Jeremy Williams (the former Australian String Quartet) with cellist Patrick Murphy.

As the Australian String Quartet (ASQ, not to be confused with the all-female Australian Quartet, formerly the Tankstream Quartet), the ensemble toured to Asia and Europe, performing at venues as diverse as Wigmore Hall, London; Konzerthaus, Berlin; Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, Singapore; and Beijing.

In 2003 the musicians débuted at the Haydn Festival in Eisenstadt, Austria, to such acclaim that they returned in September 2006 as part of their final ASQ tour. This tour included performances at Graz, Bad Ragaz Festival Switzerland and Wigmore Hall where they were immediately invited to return as Grainger Quartet.

Grainger Quartet was formed in October 2006 and from 2007, Sydney has been the Quartet's home.

Copyright © 1 September 2008 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand


Through a Glass Darkly - Roger Smalley Chamber Works

MR 301112 Stereo NEW RELEASE 62'35" 2008 Melba Recordings

Australian String Quartet:
Natsuko Yoshimoto, violin
James Cuddeford, violin
Jeremy Williams, viola
Niall Brown, cello

Darryl Poulsen, horn
Paul Wright, violin
Roger Smalley, piano

Roger Smalley (born 1943):

Piano Quintet (2003) (Overture; Intermezzo; Scherzo; Chaconne with Variations)

Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano (2000-2002) (Allegro energico; Mirror Variations - Senza misura; Allegro molto)

String Quartet No 2 (1999-2000)


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