Mosaic: Australian Guitar Concertos. Works by Richard Charlton, Ross Edwards, Philip Bracanin, Peter Sculthorpe

Karin Schaupp (guitar), Benjamin Northey, Richard Mills, Ronald Spigelman (conductors), Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Queensland Symphony Orchestra
Classical, New Music
ABC Classics 481 0961
Reviewed by , April 1st, 2015

Mosaic: Australian Guitar Concertos, makes for an interesting historical document. This compilation of recordings, made at different times between 1993 and 2006, is a snapshot of a particular kind of Australian music of the early 1990s. This is a body of work that in hindsight seems strangely inhibited in many ways, certainly conservative, and one suspects aspiring for a popularity that was not fully realised. The music tends strongly toward tonality, and the composers have chosen a surprisingly limited sonic palette in general. The guitar writing is likewise remarkable primarily for its focus on very conventional colours and techniques. None of these things alone is inherently negative, but they add up to suggest a manner or attitude that now seems curious.

Karin Schaupp

Karin Schaupp

The guitar concerto is a problematic genre to begin with, due to the difficulty of balancing the relatively quiet solo instrument against any kind of orchestral force. Composers cope with this problem in different ways (you might like to listen to Nordgren’s Guitar Concerto, Brouwer’s several concertos, or Takemitsu (To the Edge of Dream), Rochberg (Eden: Out of Time and Out of Space), or Carter’s beautiful ensemble piece Luimen to get some ideas), but in the works on this CD the challenge is seldom turned to advantage.

Richard Charlton’s Mosaic (1995) was written as a set piece for a guitar competition in Darwin. This is music that might work best as a film soundtrack—perhaps for some kind of western, with protagonists galloping through a dusty landscape of canonic imitation and threatening modulations. The guitar writing is surprisingly conventional, given that the composer is a guitarist, which serves as a reminder that often the strongest pieces of repertoire are written by people who do not play the instrument in question. Karin Schaupp’s performance does reveal some nice colouring in the slower sections, although there is an overall sense of restraint, of neatness at the expense of drama and direction.

Ross Edwards’ Arafura Dances—Concerto for Guitar and Strings (1995) was also composed in connection with the Darwin Guitar Festival and in 2005 won the APRA-AMC prize for best orchestral work of the year. The work is a sequel to Edwards’ more famous Maninyas violin concerto of 1988, and inhabits the same quasi-minimalist musical universe. Despite the title reference to the Arafura Sea, this piece has a quaintly pastoral English atmosphere, both harmonically and melodically. Again, Schaupp’s playing communicates most strongly in the slower, more intimate sections (like the second movement), where she is best able to project line and phrase. The guitar-writing is relatively straight-forward and there are some poetic moments, but it is not surprising that Edwards has also dished this piece up for harp and orchestra as there seems to be little in the score that is idiomatically guitaristic (if that can be a word). This work, like Charlton’s, has something of the air of a soundtrack about it—perhaps in this case a sepia–toned historical TV drama.

Philip Bracanin’s three movement Guitar Concerto (1991) was written for Karin Schaupp as a result of a commission, and won the APRA prize for best Australian classical composition in 1995. This is a remarkable and strange work that might almost have been composed by some Soviet-era protégé of Prokofiev, so firmly is it planted in an old-style neo-classicism. While Bracanin does exploit some natural tone-colours of the guitar, making use of contrasts between brighter and darker registers and the properties of different strings, and there is some interesting orchestration, the musical language (seemingly without post-modern irony) is puzzling.

Pete Sculthorpe’s Nourlangie (1989) also has a north-Australian connection, having been inspired by a visit to Kakadu National park. The work opens with the cheap thrill of a thunder-sheet roll, and it is telling that this, with a lovely shimmer of upper partials, is the most sonically interesting moment on the CD. Sculthorpe’s writing for orchestral strings always has a characteristic tension, but this is quickly enervated by the limp guitar melody which dominates the opening section. The composer soon turns to his familiar violin bird-noises and a tune supposedly appropriated from Torres Strait Islander people (which seems insensitive and politically gauche). There is one brief, beautiful section about half way through the 20-minute work—of slow, enigmatic chords on the guitar. For a moment, one feels that the composer is about to say something profound… but then he doesn’t. In this and one or two other blessedly abstract moments we catch glimpses of what the work might have been.

In all these works, one feels that most of the time the orchestras are holding back their sound (sometimes also literally muted) which contributes to the curious sense of repressed energy even in fast movements. This is of course related to the essential problem of balance with guitar, and otherwise there is much to be enjoyed in the performances from both orchestras. Schaupp’s playing is always neat and refined—at times, one wishes that she would throw caution to the wind and let the music sing more expansively. She is to be admired for her long-standing dedication to the performance of Australian music, and one looks forward to her repertoire growing in diversity.

One wonders, after all this, about what gave rise to this curiously conservative and limited music? While it might be tempting to attribute some of this to the influence of the Darwin Guitar Festival (musical competitions in general trend toward artistic fossilisation), fashions encouraged by the music ‘industry’, or perhaps some natural conservatism on the part of classical guitarists, I suspect that the truth is a little more complex and involves us all. In this respect the CD has some interest as a document of a curious facet of Australian music-creation at a particular point in history.

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