Big Band, Classical, Jazz, Music, New Music
Reviewed by Simon Hukin, April 1st, 2015
Young composers with the stamina and wherewithal to independently fund, record, and produce their own albums are rare. Sally Greenaway has managed it three times. Her first two records focused on the big band. This album, her first art music foray, is a significant departure.
Taking her inspiration from the ABC Swoon series, Ms Greenaway intended her music to evoke the landscapes of Canberra and surrounds at sunset and daybreak. Unrepentantly neoromantic, her works certainly succeed in conjuring images of rolling hills and placid lakes. They are lush, programmatic, and entirely tonal.
Much of the album could have been taken directly from a film score. In places there are echoes of Sculthorpe, Nyman, Hisaishi, and even John Williams. Ms Geenaway’s intention – ostensibly to create music for contemplation – doesn’t suffer from this, indeed the familiarity of timbre allows the listener to lie back and relax without needing to attempt any complex analysis.
This accessibility comes at a price. While it is a pleasant and cohesive experience, the music often seems a little tentative, as though Ms Greenaway is sacrificing her compositional imagination to the desire to be inoffensive. There are moments where she obviously wants to push a boundary or explore an exciting new area but takes a step back. The climax of The Blue Mountains, for example, could have opened out into something grand and expansive. There are all the beginnings of a powerful symphony here, but at present it seems fragmentary, with an anticlimactic ending. I hope she decides to take it further in future.
There are times when Ms Greenaway lets go, when she allows the music to run away with itself. These are moments of sheer joy. The textural interplay at the beginning of the opening track Aurora Musica Amica is uplifting and intoxicating, for example.
Flywheel, a jazz trio performed by Trichotomy toward the end of the disk, is similarly brilliant. Its minimalism, bass effects, and the harmonic interplay between bass and keys make this both a remarkable performance and a standout composition. It is The Bad Plus without the frenetic edge, the Jacques Loussier Trio yet more original. A work to buy an album for.
Of further note is Skylark, a choral work Greenaway first wrote when she was fourteen. The complex harmonies and intricate internal movement are delightful, and at times intriguing. This is the kind of exploration to which Ms Greenaway seems particularly suited.
The structure of the album is also remarkably cohesive given that it presents many diverse ensembles and takes a tumble from art music into jazz toward the end. It may even be a little too cohesive – the pieces start to blend together thanks to their similar tempi and atmosphere. Perhaps this was the intention, but I would have liked a little more variety. Something bouncy and playful to fragment and enhance the general placidity in the middle. However, ending with the simple and touching Encore de Lirico was a masterstroke.
Performances are generally good. I was particularly impressed by the combination of Miss Greenaway on piano and Gillian Pereira on cello in Poems. Their interplay was considered and deeply emotive. The performance of The Blue Mountains by the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra is commendable for its delicacy and flow. In the orchestral pieces there were occasional issues of tuning and balance, with the bass strikingly absent in the first and third tracks. However, despite these occasional problems Aubade & Nocturne is surprisingly well produced. It is particularly impressive as a first foray into classical production.
I would never normally comment on packaging. However, this took me by surprise. The disk is sumptuously delivered: a matte grey case made from an incredibly tactile material, containing beautiful pictures of Canberra’s landscapes and very good photographs of the musicians involved. It is a cut above the general production of even the largest labels, and Ms Greenaway designed, compiled and funded it entirely on her own.
Aubade & Nocturne demonstrates Ms Greenaway’s tremendous potential, and goes some way to showcasing her range of talents. I am eager to hear more.
The album is now available online through ABC Classics and from Ms Greenaway’s website. Cover art and purchase: http://sallygreenaway.com.au/cd-aubade-nocturne.html