Roger Woodward: A Concerto Collection

Roger Woodward, piano
Classical, New Music
7-CD box set: ABC Classics 481 1324
Reviewed by , May 1st, 2015

It has often been noted that Australia seems to have produced more than its fair share of great pianists during the last century and a half (if you start a list it just goes on and on: Ernest Hutcheson, Winifred Burston, Percy Grainger, Eileen Joyce, Bruce Hungerford, Gordon Watson, Geoffrey Parsons, Geoffrey Tozer, Larry Sitsky, Michael Kieran Harvey, Lisa Moore, and so on through to younger virtuosi like Duncan Gifford, Peter de Jager, Zubin Kanga, Joy Lee, etc.). Among these, Roger Woodward looms large as a key figure—not only for his remarkable pianistic ability and his international profile but also for his lifelong championing of new music, and his commitment to Australian music over many decades.

The list of musicians with whom he has collaborated includes most of the important conductors of the past half-century, and the list of composers who have written major works for him is like the index to a text-book of late-20th century great composers. For me personally, as no doubt for many others, Woodward’s playing has been a part of my musical life since early childhood—in particular, I recall that his 1970 EMI recording of the Chopin Etudes Op. 10 was always close to my parents’ record player, and I still love and admire this recording.

Roger Woodward

Roger Woodward

Now in his 70s, still active as a performer, Woodward’s work has recently been the focus of two publications from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: his autobiographical memoir, Beyond Black and White (2014), and this 7-cd boxed set of historic recordings made in Australia between 1982 and 2012. A previous 7-cd release of Woodward’s recordings from the ABC archive was selected to cater to the ABC ‘Swoon’-enthusiasts, and consisted largely of popular miniatures. This new ‘concerto collection’, however, is an entirely different beast—an intelligently curated set of recordings with real historical and musical value. Listening through the entire set over several weeks, I found that this collection serves as the basis for a wealth of insights into much more than simply Woodward’s piano playing: it also serves to remind us of the breadth of his musical and intellectual interests, of the major works by contemporary composers that he has championed (sometimes in the face of opposition), and it serves as a fascinating study of changes in orchestral playing over the years in Australia and of some interesting conductors who have worked here.

In these recordings, it must be said, Woodward’s playing is consistently rather wonderful—never less than polished and fascinating, and frequently magnificent. He has not always been so well served by pianos, orchestras or conductors in this country, and there are moments in these recorded performances when one senses some of the challenges that Woodward must have faced at times when playing in Australia. On the other hand, among these recordings are some where a special alignment of forces (instrument, orchestra, conductor, recording engineer) occurs and we hear a performance of sensational quality—and it is on those occasions, I sense that we hear the ‘real’ Woodward, volatile, powerful, and magisterial.

Roger Woodward, right, with his teacher Alexander Sverjensky

Roger Woodward, right, with his teacher Alexander Sverjensky

CD 1 opens with the Bach Concerto in D minor (BWV1052), recorded live with the strings of the QSO conducted by Eivind Aadland in 2012. The orchestra, breaking with 21st century expectations, somehow manages to make the ornate 18th century music sound bland and dull. The chief interest here is Woodward, and more particularly to hear how he presents the flamboyantly virtuosic harpsichord part on a modern piano. Initially sceptical, I must admit that I was partly won over. While necessarily somewhat ‘romantic’ in nature, Woodward’s approach is sensitive and hardly uninformed, with a fine clarity of gesture and a lively immediacy. Together with a kaleidoscopic range of articulations, he takes many of the possible colours of a modern concert piano—including those little growls and rattles that are usually ironed out—to break up the homogeneity of piano sound, creating effects which are subtly reminiscent of harpsichord registrations. At some moments, this feels slightly exaggerated and mannered, one suspects in an effort to counter the enervating effect of the orchestra trudging along in the background. Overall, the performance is an interesting one, and the 1st movement is particularly successful. Given that Woodward’s recent recordings of Bach for the Celestial Harmonies label are receiving international accolades and awards, this gives some useful insight into his approach.

Perhaps the strangest performance in the entire collection, is of Haydn’s cute little concerto for violin and organ in F (Hob. XVIII:6), in which Woodward plays organ, with Wanda Wilkomirska as violinist and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Strings under Niklaus Wyss. The work is delightful, yet the orchestral playing is stolid and lacking both grace and drama, while the 1982 recording has a rather nasal quality in the string sound. One suspects that this was a time when Haydn was still often thought of as a second-rate composer and performed accordingly. On top of that, inviting Wilkomirska to play Haydn is a bit like asking a Wagnerian soprano to sing Couperin—this is not a suitable vehicle for her playing. Woodward, meanwhile, manages to easily steal the show playing a little tooting chamber organ, and his approach to the organ part is sprightly and graceful.

Wanda Wilkomirska

Wanda Wilkomirska

Filling CD 2, Chopin’s E minor concerto Op. 11, is performed with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Werner Andreas Albert. This is a splendid concerto of the early 19th century, epic in scope and full of poetry—like a world unto itself. In this 1982 studio recording, Woodward plays with great concentration and focus, with a compelling attention to detail and an instinct for the larger architecture of the work. His playing is at times fierce or tender, fragile and delicate, brisk and bright, fluid without sentimentality. The piano sounds a very fine one, although with a few flaws presumably due to imperfect maintenance—which I mention simply because it is one of the common difficulties faced by pianists in this country. In comparison to the grandeur and subtlety of Woodward’s playing, the orchestra sounds… well, a bit ugly and prosaic. The orchestral sections without piano, such as the opening exposition, are deadly dull and lacking any sense of romance or mystery. A few brass and wind passages stand out expressively, but are quickly stifled—as though the conductor had frowned at such insubordinate musicianship.

1982 must have been a busy year for Woodward. CD 3 is devoted to two Beethoven concertos also recorded in that year. The 4th concerto in G major is the first time in this set where we hear Woodward matched with a conductor of sufficient ability for them to really work as a team to produce a convincingly unified performance: Georg Tinter. The Queensland Theatre Orchestra play very well in this live performance of great gravitas and integrity. Under Tintner’s rigorous direction, they match Woodward’s lightning reflexes in what must have been a hauntingly memorable concert for those present in Brisbane.

Even better, is the live performance of Beethoven’s 3rd concerto in C minor recorded a few months earlier in Perth. Here, with Albert Rosen conducting the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, we find Woodward once again working with a strong ensemble and the result is a very tightly-knit performance. Listening to this, we rediscover what a great ‘classical’ pianist Woodward can be and his approach works well for this concerto, which is something of a homage to Beethoven’s youthful hero Mozart. The clarity, energy and lyricism of Woodward’s playing are matched by excellent orchestral playing. In the second movement, the performance captures perfectly the quality of Beethoven in his sensitive, romantic mode—with just the right hint of churchiness—while the final 3rd movement is good humoured, witty, and glorious. Overall, this is a magnificent, exciting performance of a wonderful work. As soon as it ends, you will want to play it again.

In CD 4, we hear the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under the conductor Edo de Waart sounding infinitely better than in the earlier recordings discussed above, and much more like a respectable modern orchestra. As a musical work, Prokofiev’s 3rd concerto seems to my jaded ears a little lame and shallow—although it does have some nice tunes and as a virtuoso piece it is great fun in a visceral, kinetic way. The performance, certainly, is remarkable—and it is hard to resist the sheer energy and brilliance that must have been a thrill to watch live at the concert in 2000. Woodward makes use of a harder, drier sound here than in the other works, and his fearlessly high-octane performance is compelling.

Recorded at another concert in 1997, we hear a beautiful, glittering and darkly poetic performance of Scriabin’s rather strange, youthful Piano Concerto (1896). Woodward, SSO, and de Waart are all once again in fine form. Woodward’s elegant approach to the counterpoint and the lavish figuration in the piano writing are especially to be savoured in this performance, making the work like an intricate Fabergé jewel.

How refreshing, after the bright kitsch of Prokofiev and the super-saturated lyricism of Scriabin, is Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto (1942), another live concert recording with SSO and de Waart. Considering the dark time in which it was composed, the work bristles with intelligence, expressivity, wit, colour—indeed, we all too often forget that Schoenberg was one of the great orchestrators. This is a powerful and committed performance of a work that really should be heard much more often. Woodward’s playing here is colourful and expressive; he communicates the virtuosically orchestral keyboard textures with a confident mastery, and sensitivity as to how the piano part functions within the overall context. This is a terrific performance of one of the masterpieces of mid-20th century music, and a very significant CD release.

CD 5 opens with a sumptuous, thumpingly splendid performance of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd concerto in C minor—another extraordinary live recording from a concert in 2003 with the SSO conducted by Charles Dutoit. Recorded beautifully by engineer Allan MacLean, Woodward revels in a magnificent piano (truly, not all instruments are created equal) and the orchestral playing is sensational. Woodward, the SSO and Dutoit play as though this is not simply an over-familiar concert war-horse, but a manifestly great masterpiece—and isn’t that how we should play everything? In this situation, Woodward’s abilities dramatically take wing and he gives what must surely be one of the finest, most compelling recorded performances of this concerto. With this rare conjunction of great piano, orchestra, and conductor, the pianist is able to play unhindered by circumstantial limitations, and the result is superlatively beautiful and majestic.

Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), his last orchestral work, is really a symphony for orchestra and piano with parts also for choir and colour-organ. This is the more influential, later Scriabin, whose work exerted a strong influence over many composers in the period after his untimely death in 1915 (you can hear for example, very clear premonitions of Szymanowsky’s opera King Roger in Prometheus). A live recording, from 1997 with SSO and Diego Masson, this is a fine performance of the extravagant score. Woodward’s playing of the piano part is exemplary, capturing some sense of the dangerous, white-hot intensity of the composer’s own extraordinary piano playing.

Rounding out this disc is Huan, a work for piano and 40-part string orchestra by the very interesting Chinese-born composer Qu Xiao-Song. This is a ravishingly beautiful work, in a rather nice live performance with Camerata Australia directed by Diego Masson (although a few moments of slight hesitancy from the strings suggest that a little more rehearsal might have been a good thing). Woodward clearly loves the piece, and plays the spacious, elegant piano part with grace and intensity. Qu’s music is quite distinctive, with elements of Chinese traditional music combined with a language that seems to have affinities with Feldman, Xenakis, and Takemitsu. We should play more of his work in Australia.

Larry Sitsky

Larry Sitsky

CD 6 is occupied by two very important recordings of Australian concertos, and while they have both been previously released (albeit long ago and in the case of one, on LP), it is good to have them reissued. Larry Sitsky’s Piano Concerto No.1: The 22 Paths of the Tarot (here recorded in 1997 with David Porcelijn and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra) was composed especially for Woodward, and had a lengthy and at times difficult gestation. (There is a brief discussion of this in Woodward’s new book, and it would make an interesting case-study in relations between composers and performer-commissioners of new works.) The resulting work as performed here, which differs somewhat from the original score, is really very fine and a great vehicle for Woodward as pianist. Sitsky solved the problem of how to write a large-scale work in the fragmented language of the 1990s by writing 22 short movements, one for each tarot card of the major arcana. It is an ingenious device, and Sitsky’s own highly-developed structural sensibility holds it all together. The piano part switches rapidly from celestial lyricism to towering infernos of sound, and Woodward’s mercurial temperament is shown to advantage in this excellent performance—he brings a convincing and flamboyant elegance to the work, albeit at the expense of some moments where one feels that the piano might snarl and thunder a little more (to be fair, this might be due partly to the recording equalisation, which at times seems to be weak in bass frequencies). The work has all the trademarks of Sitsky at his best: exciting and original piano writing, vivid orchestration, a huge variety of textures and affects, and his characteristically expressive, attenuated melodic lines. It is a work that really deserves to be played more often.

Barry Conyngham

Barry Conyngham

Barry Conyngham’s Southern Cross: Double Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra (1981) is a powerful work from one of Australia’s many rather neglected important composers… I really can’t remember when I last heard any of his music played in concert. This recording serves as a timely reminder of the quality and strength of his music—and certainly he remains one of the most interesting of the students of Peter Sculthorpe. The work is in 5 movements, titled ‘Magnitude’, ‘Velocity’, ‘Duration’, ‘Collisions’, and ‘Distance’, and it is arresting from the very first moment. There are occasional flourishes in homage to Sculthorpe and the cult of Australianism (a passage of twittering bird-song, for example, and eerily nasty fragments of Waltzing Matilda), but I sense little direct influence of Conyngham’s other teacher, Takemitsu. Rather, the work seems to owe something to the massive, brutalist gestures of Xenakis and in this lies a great part of its attraction. Woodward here plays with the energy and ferocity that the score demands, and he is abetted in this task by the formidable Wanda Wilkomirska as violinist, who is in her element. The SSO and Niklaus Wyss make a good showing in this performance, confirming that in the Haydn concerto recorded at the same 1982 concert they really weren’t trying very hard. This is a strong, provocative work and like the Sitsky concerto, it is one that repays repeated listening and should be heard more often in concert performances.

The final disc is taken up entirely by one of Xenakis’ largest works, Kraanerg. This huge, sprawling piece for 23 instruments and a pre-recorded electro-acoustic part on 4-channel tape, was composed as a dance work for the opening of the Canadian National Arts Centre in 1969. (The Sydney Opera House, in telling contrast, was opened in 1973 with performances of Prokofiev and Wagner… ) In this performance, taking a break from the piano, Woodward is directing the Alpha Centauri Ensemble, who played the work in 1988, with choreography by Graeme Murphy. By all accounts, this was a very good reinvention of the work (the original choreography by Roland Petit was apparently not very successful) and the Alpha Centauri performance as recorded is certainly well done. The sound quality of the recording, however, is not as good as more recent performances (that of the Calithumpian Consort under direction of Stephen Drury on Mode records is hugely superior) and this rather undermines the clarity and effectiveness of the tape sections in particular. The deeper value of this recording is to remind us of the extraordinary concerts organised by Woodward under the banner of his Sydney Spring Festival, which ran from 1990 until 2012. The Woodward/Murphy performance of Kraanerg in 1988 was a foretaste of the riches to come. You can browse the festival programs archived on Woodward’s website (http://www.rogerwoodward.com/index.php/background/sydney_spring_gallery/ ) and they are extraordinary—concerts of exciting repertoire, many Australian premieres of important pieces from international composers, many new works by Australian composers (the Sitsky concerto, for one), and many great performers. This festival was only one small part of Woodward’s diverse lifetime achievements yet even if he had done nothing else, he would be a great figure in Australian music for this alone, and for this reason Kraanerg seems a fitting conclusion to the 7 disc set. (http://graememurphy.com/wordpress/?p=489 )

The CDs are accompanied by program notes by Roger Covell, and they are well worth reading; eccentric but often insightful and intermittently informative. From the liner notes, it is not entirely clear who made the selection of recordings for this release, which is a pity because whoever did it deserves some recognition. One imagines that there are a great many unreleased Woodward recordings in the ABC archives, so choosing a selection of best-quality or historically valuable performances was presumably an interesting task. The result is very successful and gives a good sense of the variety and breadth of Woodward’s work with orchestras in this country. If one were to think of any possible works that one would wish had been included in a fully representative collection, I think mostly of those pieces that were composed specifically for Woodward by important international composers, or that he championed. Two that immediately spring to mind are Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, and Xenakis’ Keqrops, although recordings of his playing of these pieces outside of Australia are readily available.

Roger Woodward 2

To sum up, this set of recordings is a very valuable survey of some key aspects of Woodward’s work, with a particular historical relevance to Australia—and they document a heroic legacy. All the performances included are at the very least interesting, and even the weaker ones are enjoyable for one reason or another (usually to do with Woodward’s own playing, which is consistently the stronger element). Woodward is the only Australian pianist since Grainger to attain the status of an urban legend in his own lifetime, but listening through a set of recordings like this is more significantly an opportunity to reassess a unique and priceless body of work, without regard to such distractions. While some recordings stand out here for the sheer exhilaration of the pianism (Prokofiev and Scriabin, for example), or as rare performances of works we should hear more often (Sitsky, Conyngham, Qu), a few draw irresistible attention above all as simply being breath-takingly marvellous: Beethoven 3rd concerto, Schoenberg, and the Rachmaninoff 2nd concerto. These three recordings unite Woodward, as noted earlier, with fine pianos, great orchestral playing, excellent conductors, and good recording engineers. They are performances of the very highest quality, and recordings to treasure and enjoy repeatedly.

5 thoughts on “Roger Woodward: A Concerto Collection”

  1. Moya Henderson says:

    This is such a fine review. A longish read, but then, a lot of music to cover: 7 discs full. The insight and knowledge of Alistair Noble dazzles. But he has an innate generosity and respect for all who come under his purview. The 7-disc box will probably cost a motza, but Noble makes the buy irresistible.

    1. Richard Letts says:

      Moya, thank you so much for this comment. I agree that Alistair Noble is a very fine reviewer. The 7-CD box set actually does not cost a motza. It’s $58, a bit over $8 a disc, so all things considered, it’s a very good deal.

      1. Moya Henderson says:

        I was a bit ashamed of making that niggardly remark, Dick. After all, 7 CDs and no skimping! But for $58, well, that’s a real bargain. So many treasures to enjoy. Who’ll take my order?

    2. Alistair Noble says:

      Many thanks for the kind feedback, Moya. Let us know what you think about the Cds if you get a chance to listen 🙂

      1. Moya Henderson says:

        I certainly will, Alistair. The package may even be in the PO Box today. I’ll check this evening. I worship Prokofiev. Goes back to my residency with Opera Australia in 1973. The company staged a splendid ‘War and Peace’ and I attended so many rehearsals and performances. Sam Wanamaker directed, Ted Downes conducted. Stunning. So now I’m in awe of you, that you found something less that perfect in Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano. Would love to discuss further.

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