A Little Variation: Variation Form as Used by Australian Composers

Jeanell Carrigan, piano. Works by McKay, Webb, Hannan, Polglase, Davidson, Isaacs.
Classical, New Music
Australian Music Centre VAST032.2
Reviewed by , April 1st, 2015

Jeanell Carrigan is a passionate pianist. She seems to be able to harness that passion and find works by primarily Australian composers that deserve a thorough, active listening. Without her, a lot of good music would lie mouldering in the corner and never be discovered. Carrigan’s past work, for labels such as Wirripang (www.australiancomposers.com.au) and the Australian Music Centre (http://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au, the Vox Australis label), has showcased her taste for diversity and eclecticism in over a dozen released recordings.

This recording was released in 2012 and contains a number of accessible Australian piano pieces by Australian composers. All of the pieces are linked by being in some sort of variation form. This implies a link with a neo-romantic accessibility in itself, as the form was one which, having its roots in the ground bass works of the Baroque and continuing during the Classical period, arguably achieves its full flowering in the music of the Romantic, beginning with transition figures such as Mendelssohn and ending with Brahms and even Rachmaninoff. Nearly all of them seem to be in the thrall of Paganini and the variations of his Capriccio No. 24! Variation form always seems to have an element of connection with the music of the past.

Jeanell Carrigan

The opening work by Justin McKay, based on the music of J.S. Bach, seems to introduce this connection aptly. The clear melodic line at the very beginning is the departure point for the entire work. Carrigan’s playing is adept at teasing out  individual lines and is very much at home in this work. In fact, time and again, Carrigan proves (if proof were still needed) that a player who plays new music well can only do so with a mastery of technique and expression that is just as easily at home with the music of the masters of the past.

Peter Webb’s Variations For Piano requies a totally different tone and touch throughout and Carrigan, occasionally taking a break to knock on the body of the piano, displays a lightness of touch that is dance-like and most suitable to this very agreeable work. The pesante section of the piece thus comes as a refreshing surprise as well as displaying a fine sense of architecture on the part of the composer.

Michael Hannan is composer I don’t hear enough of. Each time I hear a work of his that I’m not familiar with, that thought strikes me again. He has a delicacy of line and and deep understanding of the use of dissonance that we could all learn from. His Mood Variations displays a mature composer’s understanding of the instrument. The sinewy first movement has lines that simultaneously blend and contrast in a very fine display of technique. The second movement, which begins and ends in the lower reaches of the piano, contrasts with the register and texture of the first. Carrigan displays this contrast admirably. The third movement, far more scale-driven and “virtuosic” is a short, fiery end to this delightful work.

John Polgase’s Variations on a Theme by Bela Bartok displays again the hold the past has over variation form. However, the choice of Bartok rather than, say, Bach, Haydn or Paganini distinguishes this composer’s model and fits well with his reputation of rejecting modernism and refusing to bow to popular taste. Bartok could be said to have been, if not paddling the same boat, at least the same sort of boat. There’s a lovely lyricism in this music, as well as more than a tip of the hat to the original model’s place in the world of the pianist. This is a big piece – some 23 minutes, but its structure, aided by the variation form, is secure. The lyrical movements are very poetic and the expressive writing is excellent. Carrigan displays, yet again, a deep understanding of the work, married to a formidable technical and expressive capability.

Robert Davidson’s Variations and Episodes is another melodically-driven work (this is variation form after all) but the first to explore pentatonic and modal ideas. At times, it seems to owe a debt to some of George Winston’s harmonic world and there are certain traps in the original sound world of the pentatonic scale that are difficult to escape, such as the sound of open fifths and the intervallic patterns of the original scale-driven melody. This piece does provide a cleansing harmonic pallette after a fairly constant dose of seven- and eight-note scales, but I’m not entirely convinced that its original material warranted a piece of this length with such a limited, almost static sound world at the beginning.

Michael Hannan’s Zen Variations injects a much-need spikiness into the recording. It is well programmed after Davidson’s work. It is far more modernist than the rest of the CD. As such, it draws some attention to itself. The playing of harmonics inside the piano, the octave displacements, the free use of dissonance and the irregularity of rhythm mark it in its time somewhat, but it is a beautifully constructed work. Hannan demonstrates an extremely sensitive ear for tone colour – a sensitivity well-matched in the performance by Carrigan.

Miniature and Variations by Mark Isaacs begins with a Bach-like chorale with some very tasty jazz-derived chords. The variations alter in their textures and style from big, Romantic gestures to jazz-derived, almost “Les Six”-inspired writing. This most agreeable work is a fine way to finish the recording.

The recording has a beautiful sound, coming partly from the fine Verbruggen Hall Steinway and Hideki Isoda’s sensitive recording. This recording is one to add to the list of treasures of Australian music that seem to be growing by the year. Surely Jeanell Carrigan belongs in this category as well. Australian music has a great champion in Carrigan’s fine playing and scholarship. She deserves far wide recognition for the quality of her work.

Jeanell Carrigan’s recordings and books can be found at each of the websites listed above, but also through the Australian Music Centre page: http://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/search?type=product&sort=titleSort&q=Jeanell+Carrigan

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