Agony and Ecstasy: Australian Music from the Time of Arthur Boyd

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, South Australian Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, West Australian Symphony Orchestra, various conductors
Classical, New Music
ABC Classics 481 1210
Reviewed by , November 1st, 2014

What with the perils of internet piracy, the impending death of classical music and the end of the civilisation as we know it, the recording business faces one or two challenges. These are met with various strategies, ranging from the Complete Symphonies/String Quartets of canonical composer N to recycling bleeding chunks for ‘best of’ CDs, to the somewhat opportunistic compilations, frequently Baroque or Rococo Pops, to be enjoyed while cooking, doing yoga or bathing the dog. Ideally, these raise sufficient revenue to support riskier enterprises like the recording of new work.

Arthur Boyd rainbow

ABC Classics, despite being part of the Tax Payer Funded ABC, enjoys much less state munificence than other record companies. Well, one anyway. So ABC Classics uses some of the strategies outlined above – a very creditable Adelaide Symphony Orchestra Complete Sibelius Symphonies, various Timeless Musics of N, and compilations like the Swoon series or Eternity (which, fitting on a single CD, must be in breach of the Trade Practices Act) or the ultimate stocking-stuffer Bark! And other Musical Delights for your Dog. And we must be thankful for initiatives like the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s Australian Composer Series (why yes – yes there is…), which also appear on the ABC Classics label.

ABC Classics, naturally, enjoys access to the rich archive of recordings made live or in the studio by ABC radio over many decades, making it possible to compile Festschrift collections for major anniversaries of the orchestras that were once also under the national broadcaster’s wing, and otherwise to (re)issue important historical recordings.

Agony and Ecstasy is a compilation of ‘Australian music from the time of Arthur Boyd’, released to celebrate the major exhibition of Boyd’s work at the National Gallery of Australia this year. The title, with its unfortunate echoes of Charlton Heston, as Michelangelo, baring his teeth and chest and flinging paint at the Sistine Chapel ceiling and a pontifical Rex Harrison, is that of the exhibition. The CD includes eleven works from Percy Grainger’s 1919 Spoon River to Lumen, composed in 1998 by Richard Meale; it is a sampler of widely-varying styles and voices, featuring a range of Australian performers in recordings made over a considerable span of time, and as such is a valuable document of Australian musical creativity. (The list of works can be found at the bottom of this review.)

Miriam Hyde

Miriam Hyde

The Boyds are a cultural dynasty of a particularly Melbourne type. Arthur Boyd was a member of the third generation of artists in his family, and was involved in the febrile atmosphere of modernism embraced from the 1930s on by the likes of Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester and John Perceval, and encouraged by John and Sunday Reed of what is now the Heide Museum of Modern Art. There was some crossover with like-minded literati, namely Max Harris and the Angry Penguin set in the 1940s, but little or none with composers. Indeed, of the Melburnian-born composers represented here – Grainger, Alfred Hill and Peggy Glanville-Hicks – only the latter was Boyd’s close contemporary, and all were, without exception, soon expatriated. At times, Boyd did produce work for or inspired by opera or ballet, such as his Magic Flute series, frock designs for Elektra, and paintings for the State Theatre in Melbourne, but there, was sadly, no real chance of finding many close correspondences between his paintings and specific works of Australian music.

John Antill

John Antill

There is, therefore, a certain amount of ‘usual suspect’ programming here. While it is no doubt true that the modernist enterprise came later to music than to literature and the plastic arts, there were composers in Melbourne during Boyd’s earlier life whose aesthetic and ‘spiritual’ concerns are not so removed from his: his early landscapes are, specifically, Victorian (he complained while resident at ANU in the early 1970s ‘I still can’t get the blue skies right … the blue is so intense compared to the Victorian’) so a work like Margaret Sutherland’s The Haunted Hills might have found a place here; the anguished spirituality of Boyd’s biblical paintings might have been illuminated by music of Dorian Le Gallienne.

David Lumsdaine

David Lumsdaine

As it is, there are several pieces on this CD that might in some way evoke landscape. Grainger’s Spoon River is inspired by a folk song from Illinois and sounds very fine under John Hopkins and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Violinist Donald Hazelwood and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Stuart Challender give what is surely the definitive reading of Peter Sculthorpe’s epochal Irkanda IV of 1961 where, despite the north Queensland provenance of the title, the composer’s ‘remote and lonely place’ makes a nice fit with Boyd’s Wimmera landscapes. Ross Edwards is represented by the final movement of his 1995 guitar concerto Arafura Dances, a graceful and charming work with little connection to anything of Boyd’s, played here by Karin Schaupp with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra under Richard Mills. A more obvious match is David Lumsdaine’s 1982 Shoalhaven, one of many works that refer to the Illawarra region where Boyd, a decade earlier, had established his final home, now an artists’ retreat, at Bundanon. Lumsdaine’s work, very nicely done by Albert Rosen and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra is in part a tribute to Don Banks, so includes largish slab of jazz. Alongside it we have an historic treasure: Eugene Goossens conducting the SSO in the ‘Rain Dance’ from John Antill’s 1946 ballet suite, Corroboree in an ancient (well, 1950) mono recording. The inevitable contrast of sound quality in a way enhances the work’s strangeness (as does the unexpected cadence at the end of this short extract), which, like Boyd’s ‘Bride’ pictures, offers a challenging mixture of the familiar and the unheimlich.

Ross Edwards

Ross Edwards

At least one of the remaining recordings is of also particular historical interest – Patrick Thomas conducting the South Australian Symphony Orchestra in the first movement of Alfred Hill’s Symphony No. 2 ‘Joy of Life’, composed in 1941. This is a reissue, after some praiseworthy engineering and transference from vinyl, of a recording that first appeared on the Festival of Australian Music set issued by Festival Records in the 1970s. (Paired with James Penberthy’s Cantata on Hiroshima Panels, the LP cover somewhat incongruously features Boyd’s Irrigation Lake, Wimmera.) Hill’s unassailable (and Mendelssohnian) optimism, notwithstanding a brooding introduction, is a curious foil to the pervasively tragic vision of Boyd’s work. Tragedy, or at least high sorrow, is essayed in the ‘Elegy’ from Malcolm Williamson’s 1965 Sinfonietta, once again with the TSO under Richard Mills on good form, who also give us the orchestral version of Richard Meale’s late work, Lumen, a Debussyan study in light.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks’s Gymnopédie No.1 is included in tribute to Boyd’s use of Classical Greek motifs. Glanville-Hicks’s Vaughan Williams-inspired modal language suggests that the naked youths of the title may be dancing on the playing fields of Charterhouse rather than the plains of Sparta, but Myer Fredman and the SSO give a poised and delicately-hued performance. The slow movement from Miriam Hyde’s 1933 Piano Concerto No.1 reminds us of the composer’s gift, as Roger Covell put it, for ‘disconcertingly exact mimicry’, though its object is not, pace Natalie Shea’s informative program note, ‘pastoralism’ so much as a world, not so distant then, of Russian Romanticism. Paradoxically, this expansive movement would be better heard in the context of the whole work, which Hyde recorded late in life as soloist with the WASO and Geoffrey Simon.

Peter Sculthorpe

Peter Sculthorpe

Like Edwards and Hill, Carl Vine is represented by a work of exuberance and effortless craft, the 1993 fanfare Celebrare celeberrime, with the SSO under Edo de Waart. Such works perhaps emphasise the degree to which Boyd’s work is not effortless, either in its execution or for the viewer. As WH Chong notes in a perceptive review of the exhibition (from which Boyd’s quote about ‘blue skies’ is taken), Boyd’s figures are very often ‘ugly and clumsy, spoilt by life and original sin’. Moreover, Boyd is one of those artists who mean us to see the brushstrokes, for our eye to be arrested on the surface to see the work that goes into the image. The unfettered optimism and elegant surface of music by such different composers as Hill, Edwards and Vine could not provide a greater contrast.

Richard Meale

Richard Meale

Nevertheless, the selection offers a wonderful array of examples of what was happening in music by Australian composers at a number of crucial times in Boyd’s life. Each work is in itself worthy of our contemplation, and the sheer variety of voices is an occasion for great joy. As is the fact that we have orchestras to perform, and an institution like the ABC which guards these national treasures and makes them available to us. I hope that the NGA gift shop has done a roaring trade with these CDs, bringing the music to a listenership that might not yet have discovered it.


PERCY GRAINGER (1882–1961)
Spoon River
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, John Hopkins conductor

MIRIAM HYDE (1913–2005)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat minor: II. Lento
Miriam Hyde piano, West Australian Symphony Orchestra,
Geoffrey Simon conductor

ALFRED HILL (1869–1960)
Symphony No. 2 ‘Joy of Life’: I. Allegro
South Australian Symphony Orchestra, Patrick Thomas conductor

JOHN ANTILL (1904–1986)
Corroboree – Suite from the ballet: III. Rain Dance
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Eugene Goossens conductor

Gymnopédie No. 1 from Three Gymnopédies
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Myer Fredman conductor

Irkanda IV
Donald Hazelwood violin, Sydney Symphony Orchestra,
Stuart Challender conductor

Sinfonietta: II. Elegy
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Richard Mills conductor

West Australian Symphony Orchestra, Albert Rosen conductor

Guitar Concerto: III. Second Maninya
Karin Schaupp guitar, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra,
Richard Mills conductor

CARL VINE (b.1954)
Celebrare celeberrime
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart conductor

RICHARD MEALE (1932–2009)
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Richard Mills conductor

© Gordon Kerry 2014

Copyright The Music Trust © 2023