Peter Sculthorpe – A Retrospective Collection of Some Favourite Sculthorpe Works

Various artists
Classical, New Music
Move MD 3378
Reviewed by , February 1st, 2015

This CD contains some favourite works of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe who sadly left us in August 2014. Australia’s best-known composer, his music is renowned for drawing inspiration from the outback, the landscapes of Kakadu, indigenous music and language, and also from Asian music styles, in particular those of Indonesia and Japan. The well-selected pieces of this collection reveal some of these influences and characteristics using original settings and some more recent arrangements. Immediately upon listening, one is also struck by the warmth, melodiousness and accessibility of the pieces chosen for this collection, Sculthorpe avoiding the dense atonal techniques of many of his contemporaries. For those who don’t know Sculthorpe’s work, the album makes a perfect introduction.

Peter Sculthorpe

Peter Sculthorpe

Songs of Sea and Sky is impregnated with the atmosphere of dance, tribal song, hymns and seascapes from Sabai, an island just south of Papua New Guinea. Flautist Derek Jones extracts haunting traditional flute-like effects in these six songs. ‘Mission Hymn’ features very harmonic church-like piano parts that contrast strongly with the bird trills and flutters on the flute. Like Benjamin Britten, Sculthorpe often balances his more daring and dissonant writing with strong rhythms or clear folk-like harmonies. There is an effective balance across the set of songs with the finale ‘Wei’ attaining a lyrical broadness and serenity, or in the composer’s words, “an affirmation of one-ness of sea and sky”.

From Kakadu for solo guitar takes the terrain as its inspirational point of departure, and explores various rich resonances based upon the main theme of Sculthorpe’s orchestral piece Kakadu. The Spanish sounding setting in the first movement is taken from the composer’s first guitar concerto, since withdrawn, The Visions of Captain Quiros, who failed in his quest to discover and colonize the great southern land. It leads to an interesting contrast in music and style.

Wagogo Plains, a treatment of Morning Song by throat singer Dean Frenkel over the original piano duet is very effective in capturing the space, expanses and eeriness of Australia. Frenkel’s treatment had received Sculthorpe’s blessing and the extract of his letter published in the liner notes reminds us of how generous and open-minded the man was with his music and in his encouragement of others.

Dream Tracks features beautiful, haunting ‘Songlines’ that capture the spirit of a Torres Strait island, Arnhem Land and Kakadu in Northern Australia. Sculthorpe successfully sings the beauty of the country into existence with one superb nostalgic section ironically reminiscent of Vaughan Williams, another composer of another land but also strongly influenced by folk song and landscapes.

Little Suite for Strings features the well known ‘Sea Chant’, but set for mandolin and guitar ensemble and also the charming ‘Left Bank Waltz’, played by many an AMEB piano student as the original solo piano piece that Sculthorpe himself once self-deprecatingly described as a little French whimsy he dashed off one day.

Peter Sculthorpe

The album fittingly closes with 11.59 PM, originally published as Nocturnal for solo piano, with impressive throat singer Dean Frenkel again adding his layer of harmonics. The whole set of pieces on this album is thoroughly enjoyable and in keeping with Sculthorpe’s aim of writing music that leaves the listener feeling happier and better, and lends itself perfectly to meditation and remembrance, whether enjoyed at night by a fire or on a voyage across the outback.

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