Choral Music, Classical, New Music
ABC Classics 481 1704
Reviewed by Gwen Bennett, September 1st, 2015
Many years ago, at a recital given by a well-known singer, I was surprised to see an accompanist I had never heard of. Young, with funky clothes and spiky hair, this was my first encounter with Sally Whitwell. I was impressed, not with the apparel (I liked that too) but with her obvious pianistic abilities. I have been looking forward to her professional appearances ever since, and the clothes – recently she wore a pair of dramatic bright red Vivienne Westwood-type shoes on stage. This is not meant to be a fashion commentary, however it does exemplify to some extent the imaginative and buoyant nature of the wearer and her music.
Sally Whitwell, ARIA award winner, is now well into a successful career path which includes collaborations with various luminaries and the release of several CDs. This is the first CD of her original compositions. She says that her aim is to “keep classical music friendly” and she indeed does that.
An autobiographical aura pervades. We get the picture that Whitwell is a romantic as she joyously describes in the liner notes her experience of falling in love, also because much of her music is inspired by nineteenth century romantic poets. She has dedicated the whole album and two separate pieces – She Walks in Beauty and Winter Love – to her partner Glennda, who provided the attractive avian artwork for the cover.
Whitwell plays piano in each of the twenty tracks which at different times feature a singer, flute, violin, string quartet and choir. Four expressive piano solos loop their way between the rest. Each item is less than five minutes’ duration, demonstrating a sensitivity for what is appropriate. The effect of the total program is appealingly kaleidoscopic, cohesive and entirely enjoyable.
Birds fly around in this music. Christina Rossetti’s poetry is the inspiration for the atmospheric A Hundred Thousand Birds and Warm Where Snowflakes Lie, in which a robin makes a brief appearance; both are performed beautifully by VOX, Sydney Philharmonia’s choir for 18-30 year olds. Birds again feature in settings of Rossetti in a three part song cycle called The Birds, sung by the lovely, bell-like voice of Alexandra Oomens. The subject matter is not really about birds but about deeper things, “singing thoughts we cannot say”, symbolising “beauty and sadness, hope and joy”.
Whitwell has written both words and music for To Your Shore, a choral work that has its roots in her family history. Elements of humour creep into two pieces inspired by her train journeys, one for flute (Sally Walker) and the other for choir. The Insomnia Waltz, based on jottings during sleepless nights, is a nostalgic sounding work for violin (Kirsten Williams). In another collaboration the Acacia Quartet joins with the pianist in a lively piece, the aforementioned Winter Love.
The performances are all excellent, as is the recorded sound. The booklet has plenty of information, plus texts for the vocal works. The CD title I Was Flying comes from a Michael Dransfield poem: “I was flying over Sydney/ in a giant dog/ things looked bad”. Actually, nothing looks bad for Sally Whitwell at this stage. Her music has a spontaneity and freshness that is endearing. Perhaps the next CD could be called She Is Flying.