Peter Sculthorpe: Complete works for solo piano (2 CDs)

Tamara-Anna Cislowska, piano
Classical, New Music
ABC Classics 481 1181
Reviewed by , October 1st, 2014

With Peter Sculthorpe’s recent passing, we are reminded, with this release by one of his many champions, Tamara-Anna Cislowska, of a significant body of his life’s work. When one thinks of Peter’s compositional career, the orchestral works and string quartets stand out, so it is surprising to see so many works for piano: 33 in total, although 12 of these are works composed in his teens and one at the age of 20. His mature work is marked by the appearance of the Sonatina for piano (1954) composed when he was 25. It is interesting that in the last years of his life, Peter sanctioned the recording of his very early piano pieces, having previously been coy about allowing them to be played. I imagine there will be significant demand for their print publication when his piano-playing fans hear Cislowska’s recordings.

Tamara Anna Cislowska

Tamara Anna Cislowska

At the outset I would like to commend Chris Latham for telling the story of Peter’s relationship with the piano so well in his extended CD booklet essay titled “Peter Sculthorpe: A Life at the Piano”. What is missing, though, is some explanation of how this project came into being. I say this because a great deal of research would have been needed to source all the manuscripts of the very early works, not to mention to feel confident that one has achieved “completeness”.

CD1 of the collection contains the works written up to 1981. This period includes the Sonatina, the brilliantly-crafted Night Pieces (1971), the Sydney International Piano Competition test piece, Mountains (1981), and Peter’s three piano-interior works involving improvisation: Landscape (1971), Koto Music I (1973) and Koto Music II (1976). Cislowska gives a good account of all these works. I was particular impressed by her performance of the last movement of the Sonatina. I myself have issued two commercial recordings of the three piano-interior works, and was pleased, as a fellow traveller, to hear Cislowska’s inventive interpretations of them.

Peter Sculthorpe

Peter Sculthorpe

The standout works on CD2 are for me Nocturnal (1989) and Simori (1996). The latter, based on songs from the Simori people of PNG is arguably Peter’s most impressive piano work because of its scale and its particular balance of expressiveness and rhythmic dynamism. The longest and last of his piano works is, however, Riverina (2011), a response to the culture, geography and history of the Riverina area of New South Wales. In this work you get the sense that Peter has come full-circle. There are references to the tonalism and modalism of his early piano works and to the gentle harmonic language of Night Pieces. There is also a sense of a meditation on compositional resolution, a reflection perhaps on the ending of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a passage much beloved by Peter.

Tamara-Anna Cislowska should be congratulated for her brilliant efforts in this demanding recording project, an achievement which could well serve as a benchmark for future documentation of Peter Sculthorpe’s compositional legacy.

LISTEN: Interview with Cislowska:

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