Peter Sculthorpe 1929-2014 The ABC Recordings. PART 2

Various Australian orchestras and soloists
Classical, New Music
10-CD box set plus one DVD: ABC Classics 481 1293
Reviewed by , July 1st, 2015


Around 1980, when I was preparing my book on Peter Sculthorpe’s music for publication by the University of Queensland Press, I showed the chapter drafts to Peter who was unpleased that I was very critical of certain works. Later he told historian Manning Clark about his grievances with the impending publication and Clark declared that my book would have no value at all if it weren’t critical. After that Peter was accepting of my occasional adverse criticisms of his work. At the time the main point of contention was the large amount of recycling of musical material from one piece into another or several others.

Peter Sculthorpe

Peter Sculthorpe

The recycling issue is addressed in Graeme Skinner’s annotations for this box set. Skinner quotes Sculthorpe as likening his creative process to that of his great friend Russell Drysdale who had been accused of painting the same picture over and over again throughout his career. Drysdale’s defence was that the great Renaissance painters tackled the same themes such as “madonna and child” repeatedly. In Sculthorpe’s case this translates to finding good tunes and sticking with them.

Peter Sculthorpe

Peter Sculthorpe

Sculthorpe’s recycling practice was probably as much pragmatic as aesthetic. A significant part of his success as a composer hinged on his willingness to produce pieces to cater for the needs of virtually everyone who asked him to write something for them. Rearranging existing pieces was an obvious way to achieve this end.

Peter Sculthorpe 3

While one can be generally critical of the practice of recycling material rather than producing new material for each new piece, it is perhaps more constructive to compare the various manifestations of pieces that use the same material. In Part 1 of my review, I have already argued, for example, that String Quartet No. 7 is more structurally effective than its later Sun Music IV for orchestra manifestation.

Sculthorpe’s Piano Concerto (1983) is heavily based on material from previous works notably Mountains for piano (1981), Nocturnal for piano (1981), and Stars for piano (1971). Like Mangrove for orchestra (1979) it also appropriates a Japanese saibara melody. Significantly the work does not demonstrate the dramatic opposition between piano and orchestra that one expects in this genre. Nor is it in any obvious way virtuosic. Rather there is a pervading gamelan-like flow of piano ostinato figurations that acts like accompaniment to the orchestral textures and melodies. If you can get past its un-concerto-like nature, the work presents some exquisite moments, particularly in its final section where the piano figurations combine with an ecstatic saibara melody scored for solo cello and Sculthorpe’s trademark chorus of birdcalls. Both Tony Fogg (with the Melbourne Symphony conducted by Myer Fredman) and Tamara-Anna Cislowska (with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart) give sensitive interpretations of the solo part.

Although I would argue that the Piano Concerto transcends its sources, the same cannot be said for Earth Cry for orchestra (1986) which is largely a reorchestration of The Song of Tailitnama for high voice, six cellos and percussion (1974). Somehow the added layers of ostinati and other musical elements diminish the impact of the original. On the other hand, From Ubirr for string orchestra and didjeridu (1986/2003), another rearrangement of The Song of Tailitnama, has a very striking third section where William Barton adds a frenetic layer of animal call imitations.

Kakadu (1988), perhaps Sculthorpe’s best-known orchestral work, is here represented both in its original form and in a version with didjeridu. For its opening and closing fast sections the work uses an Elcho Island melody that was the theme of Sculthorpe’s score for the feature film Manganinnie (John Honey, 1980). For its central section there is an impassioned angular cor anglais solo which is joined by the “Djilileā€¯ melody as it unfolds. Despite the multitude of re-workings, Kakadu is one of Sculthorpe’s most powerful orchestral statements. In my view, though, the version with didjeridu introduces problematic tuning clashes when heard against the cor anglais solo and its coda solo lessens the impact of the dramatic ending of the original version.

Nourlangie, a concerto for guitar, string orchestra and percussion (1989), is, like the Piano Concerto (1983), not very concerto-like. Consisting of three main musical ideas, a set of homorhythmic dissonant chords similar to those composed for Rites of Passage (1973), a moderato major pentatonic theme based on a Torres Strait chant and a faster one based on a modified diminished scale, the texture of the guitar part and the orchestration is very ostinati-based. Karen Schaupp plays the solo part beautifully and is well supported by the TSO conducted by Richard Mills. Little Nourlangie for organ and orchestra (1990), is centred entirely on the pentatonic Torres Strait melody with the organ playing an ostinato-based supportive role.

In contrast to the predominantly gentle and spacious Nourlangie, Memento Mori (1993) is dark, brooding and dramatic. Being a lamentation for environmental destruction, it is largely based on the plainchant of the “Dies Irae” section of the Requiem Mass. Memento Mori is perhaps the most symphonic of Sculthorpe’s many orchestral adventures, and one of his most impressive works in my view. The ASO under David Porcelijn gives a very moving and dynamic performance.

Just as moving is the much shorter Port Arthur: In memoriam (1996). Although based on a theme recycled from the score of the film Burke and Wills (Graeme Clifford, 1985), it seems a fitting elegy for the victims of the Port Arthur massacre. There are two versions of this piece, one with the long-line melody played by trumpet and the other by oboe. The former is more majestic but no less wistful than the later. The two excellent recordings are by the TSO conducted by David Porcelijn with Mark Skillington (trumpet) and Joseph Ortuso (oboe).

The same orchestra and conductor also perform another short piece, Djilile for chamber orchestra (1986/1996). Based on an Arnhem Land aboriginal song, Djilile is one of the most ubiquitous borrowings in Sculthorpe’s music appearing, for example, in Port Essington, Kakadu, Djilile for piano, and in a modified form in Cello Dreaming for solo cello string orchestra and percussion (1998), where it combines with the indigenous “Maranoa Lullaby”. Cello Dreaming is a single-movement rhapsodic work revealing the many faces of what was perhaps Sculthorpe’s most favourite solo (and soloing) instrument. Sue-Ellen Paulsen (cello) and the TSO conducted by Richard Mills give a stirring performance of what sounds like a difficult piece to make good structural sense of.

Great Sandy Island for orchestra (1998) is a long programmatic work that revisits the story of Eliza Fraser, the subject of several earlier projects. “June Dreaming”, the last of the five movements is the most interesting section in a piece that generally presents very familiar Sculthorpian melodies, textures and musical gestures.

My Country Childhood for string orchestra (1999) uses an altogether different approach. In an effort to capture his early years in Tasmania, Sculthorpe reverts to a more traditionally tonal language. However the introduction of clunky dissonant elements and dense textural components spoil the innocence of the subject matter for me.

Although also a reflection on childhood experience, Quamby for orchestra (2000/2003) addresses a much darker topic – that of hearing as a child of the massacre of Tasmanian Aborigines at Quamby Bluff. The immediacy of the subject matter results in a work of high emotion and agitation.

These last three works are all part of a superbly performed and recorded CD released by the ASO conducted by James Judd.

The ASO was one of the commissioners for Requiem for SATB chorus, didjeridu and orchestra, the longest of Sculthorpe’s concert works. The composer had a long fascination with the Latin requiem mass inspired by the fact that so many prominent composers had written keystone works in this genre. He toyed with using its text in his opera Rites of Passage (1973) and quoted requiem plainchant melodies in his Requiem for solo cello (1979) and Memento Mori (1993). His choral Requiem is in the tradition of the 20th century war requiem since it is a memorial for children lost in times of war.

Although Sculthorpe quotes the requiem plainchant melodies in certain orchestral accompanying passages, his vocal settings of the requiem texts are original. They are however framed in a modal language inspired by plainchant. That said, the approach to the instrumental component is notable for its didjeridu drones (symbolising for the composer the spirituality of the Australian landscape) and regular drumming patterns, contributing a very different sound and energy from that of the European requiem composition tradition. Although Sculthorpe sticks to the structure of the requiem liturgy, there are two Aboriginal textual insertions which are choral arrangements of the Indigenous lullaby “Maranoa” mentioned earlier. The first of these, “Canticle”, is for me one of Sculthorpe’s most successful fusions of Western musical sounds with didjeridu.

Despite having some misgivings about the composer’s various borrowings and his recycling of musical ideas from early pieces into later pieces, it is clear from this release that Sculthorpe created over his career an impressive body of work for orchestra. For me, however, his string quartets are his greatest compositional achievement; and therefore it is good for comparison to have a sampler of his quartet movements on the DVD component of this box set package.

The strong commitment of Australian orchestras and their conductors to the high quality performance of Sculthorpe’s music is also evident in the release. The only issue I have with sound quality relates to CD1, which was recorded and released in the pre-digital era. In the interest of historical completeness, it is fitting that it was remastered from a vinyl disc for inclusion. Finally I should mention again Graeme Skinner’s outstanding program notes on the music. Peter Sculthorpe 1929-2014 The ABC Recordings is also brilliant value for money at around $100.

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