|This very absorbing 1996 recording received in a batch from Australia features a contemporary music specialist pianist who has recently made a great impression in London, q.v. at City University and at the Royal Academy of Music.|
David Lumsdaine’s piano music is in a modernist idiom which sounds purposive and compels attention. This disc has been reviewed in extenso by one of our contributors, Tim Rutherford-Johnson, who writes that "although the music is highly organised, there is never a sense of contrived abstraction"; about Kelly Ground " - - a sombre mood, one of energies and freedoms restrained"; with Ned Kelly's death " - - the fizzing energy of the earlier movements has become petrified".
I commend you to click onto his in-depth assessment of this important composer's "steadfast belief in the power of technical abstraction to articulate human concerns that gives Lumsdaine’s music its profound beauty". I can't match that, but am glad to have had the disc in a batch which arrived from an Antipodean firm, whose releases have from time to time given great pleasure…
©Peter Grahame Woolf
David Lumsdaine withdrew everything of his composed before 1964 when he completed his first acknowledged work Annotations of Auschwitz (1964 – soprano and ensemble). This was followed by Dum medium silentium (1965, rev. 1975 – mixed chorus), Easter Fresco (1966, rev. 1970 – soprano and four players) and Kelly Ground for piano; the latter completed in 1966 and first performed that year by Roger Smalley.
In the 1950s Lumsdaine contemplated composing an opera on Ned Kelly in collaboration with Peter Porter. This eventually came to nothing, possibly because opera as a musical genre was deemed out of fashion especially by composers who were rather attracted by the new musical trends of the time as was Lumsdaine. The idea, however, was not completely forgotten. Though it is not programmatic in any way, Kelly Ground obliquely alludes to some subliminal programme as each of the strophes makes clear, such as “Kelly’s return to Consciousness on the morning of his Execution”, “His view along the Ground to the foothills of the Wombat Ranger”, “A Nocturne on the Plain”, “A clamorous Aubade”, “An Aria for Kelly focusing simultaneously on Inside and Outside of the Cell” and “The Hanging”. This, however, must not be taken at face value for Kelly Ground is a purely abstract piece in which much has been predetermined beforehand. In it the composer attempted to achieve something that he had been aiming at in several of his now discarded works: rhythmic flexibility and fluidity within a tightly controlled working-out of the basic material. In this respect, I can best refer to Michael Hall’s thoroughly researched analysis in his book Between Two Worlds – The Music of David Lumsdaine (Arc Publications – 2003). As Michael Hooper rightly remarks in his excellent insert notes, this substantial work falls into roughly two cycles. The first (Strophes 1 to 5) is mostly virtuosic whereas the second is “still and contemplative”. The music certainly brings a number of composers to mind such as Boulez, Webern and Messiaen. The latter is also a presence because Lumsdaine weaves some birdsong into his own music, albeit in a much less systematic way than the French composer.
Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh’ alludes to the final chorus of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, the first notes of which open the piece. “The work is a meditation – on the religious level a meditation on the untimely death of Christ, on the personal level on the untimely death of Jannice, the wife of Peter Porter, for whom the work is a memorial” (Michael Hall, op.cit.). The three notes from Bach’s chorus permeate the entire work and are sometimes transformed into soft bells.
In the nineties, Lumsdaine produced five pieces sharing the title of “Soundscapes”. These were in fact recordings of birdsong made in different places in Australia. One of them was made in Cambewarra Mountain located some hundred kilometres South of Sydney. Cambewarra is heard here is a completely different piece of work although birdsong is clearly present but in a personal way. It differs from Messiaen in not aiming at imitation or transcription of birdsong as the French composer did in so many of his works. The music partly reflects what Lumsdaine achieved in his series of soundscapes, in that foreground may suddenly become background and vice versa. This creates some abrupt changes of perspective.
By comparison, Six Postcard Pieces is a set of tiny miniatures in which a maximum is achieved with a minimum of notes, the mark of a true master. As Lumsdaine humorously remarks, “by the time you’ve read the programme note, they’re finished…”.
David Lumsdaine’s piano music is certainly no easy stuff, but Mark Knoop navigates fearlessly and almost effortlessly through these exacting scores. One forgets about all the intricate working-out behind the music and its formal and technical complexity and is eventually impressed by the music’s sheer expressive strength and energy.
September, 2009 Music Web International
Because Lumsdaine has spent most of his life in England, some would say that he cannot truly be considered an Australian composer in the usual sense. Yet he strongly feels to be so, has made frequent trips back here, features Australian landscape and history in the titles of various works, and has shown a keen interest in local ornithology by making various field recordings of Australian bird calls. This CD presents his entire solo piano music for the first time, with three major works (including two world premiere recordings), and will add significantly to his reputation as one of our most important composers.
The late Don Banks described Kelly Ground(1966) to me years ago as a fine piece, and in fact it contains keyboard gestures similar to those in Banks's own Pezzo Drammatico and Richard Meale's Coruscations. I suspect it has not been too frequently performed and never recorded before simply because of the formidable challenges it poses to performer and listener alike. The material stems from an intended opera about the bushranger Ned Kelly, a project subsequently abandoned. It is largely organised serially in sequential cycles and strophes, and in some respects sounds like much of the post-war European avant-garde music played frequently at festivals of the period, such as Darmstadt and Donaueschingen. Consequently, it now inevitably seems a little dated, but the presence of a powerful musical mind always predominates. The second and third cycles, which represent Kelly's hanging, are especially moving: elegiac, mesmeric and utterly individual.
Then Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh ' (1974), to my mind the highlight of the disc. Described by the composer as "a meditation on the last chorus of Bach's St Matthew Passion", it is cast in three sections of diminishing durations. Although Bach's score is never quoted literally, it provides a fundamental atmosphere, "a motivic and harmonic web" (Lumsdaine's words) from which the piece evolves. The way whereby the ominous opening C minor chord constantly returns in a stream-of-consciousness manner lends the first movement an extraordinary sense of suspense; the same procedure also appears in the brief finale. Like Kelly Ground, this piece features haunting bell-sounds – echoes of Martinu, Messiaen and others.
The third offering is Cambewarra (1980, a three-movement piece demonstrating the composer's increasing interest in Zen Buddhism. Much of the often complex material utilizes Lumsdaine's beloved birdcalls (Messiaen again!) from the region of that name near Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales, prefiguring certain structural processes evident in Cambewarra Mountain, one of the birdsong recordings mentioned earlier. In particular, this relates to overlapping techniques and the ways whereby structural freedom can therefore result. The first movement is essentially tranquil, the second becomes far more active, and the close of the last movement reaches an obsessive climax, with frenetic repeated notes and complex figurations. For my taste the piece seems somewhat overlong (31' 02"), but contains absolutely breathtaking technical and sonic effects: not for the faint-hearted listener!
In complete contrast, the disc concludes with Six Postcard Pieces (1995), a short collection of delightful miniatures with traditional titles (March, Toccata, etc.).
I feel this is an important CD. The music is strong and always commands the listener's respect; the performances by Mark Knoop - Australian pianist/conductor living in London - are technically and emotionally compelling; the sound quality is pleasingly ambient; the presentation is appealing; the overall timing (almost 80' ) is generous; and the annotations (mainly) by Michael Hooper - Sydney mandolinist/musicologist currently researching Lumsdaine's music at York University - are exceptionally insightful and detailed.
Very highly recommended.
Music Forum August 2009
David Lumsdaine’s piano music, as heard on this excellent disc, is rich in technical intricacies. One can take analyses of these constructions on faith, but Lumsdaine’s intellectual approach is apparent as soon as one attempts an initial description of the music: one hears groups of pitches rotating and transforming, melodic and rhythmic contours evolving, the careful control of register and density. (Mark Knoop makes an ideal interpreter, conveying the full range of these subtle interactions without ever crossing into inappropriate histrionics.) This is most apparent in Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh’, an extended fantasy on the opening chords of the Bach chorale, which ghost the music’s 20-minute span, gently pushing open a window into the unfolding of Lumsdaine’s technique.
In the opening section of Kelly Ground, one can hear that the (serial) pitch organisation is arranged to determine that similar pitch collections tend to cluster together. There is also a restricted gamut of gestural possibilities: predominant is a two-note ‘spring’ upwards, like a rabbit hop. Such factors – similar examples can be found throughout this CD – contrive to give Lumsdaine’s music a certain consistency of grain, out of which emerges a sustained expressive character.
Thus, although the music is highly organised, there is never a sense of contrived abstraction. In Kelly Ground, the overwhelming mood is a sombre one of energies and freedoms restrained. This suppression is deliberate, of course, a compositional attempt to tame an infinite and anarchic field of possibilities. Over the course of the piece’s six sections, from Ned Kelly’s awakening on the morning of his execution to his eventual hanging, the musical shackles are slowly released, but the music loses cohesion and purpose. In the final section, the hanging itself, the sprung figures from the opening return to more morbid effect in slower rhythm and with portentous bass undertones, swinging like bells or a body. With Kelly’s death, the fizzing energy of the earlier movements has become petrified, the musical tension lying in the relative merits of various degrees of control and freedom.
In the late 1970s, Lumsdaine began making field recordings of Australian wildlife and landscapes. In his excellent sleevenote, Michael Hooper writes of Lumsdaine’s self-imposed rules for producing and editing such recordings, to do with fidelity to the diurnal cycle, to location and to season. In one technique, several recordings would be made in a single location, but with the microphones pointing in different directions each time, thus capturing in sound a sense of perspective and the spatial interrelationship of the landscape and its inhabitants. It is this process of objective observance within a sparsely occupied three-dimensional space that is the subject and effect of the piano piece Cambewarra. Whether there are birdsongs here or not (and this isn’t sub-Messiaen exercise in transcription) doesn’t matter: one hears musical objects simply presented and organised in contrasting temporal and spatial relation to one another. It is the way that the understanding of one’s environment is structured through phenomenal experience that is captured, more than the local details of that environment. As with Kelly Ground, in Cambewarra Lumsdaine again approaches programmatic content, whilst avoiding the temptations of crude mimesis.
An Australian landscape and a national hero. One is tempted to uncover an underlying nationalism, but to do so would be to miss the point. Despite his titles, Lumsdaine doesn’t deal in musical representations – or at least, not in any straightforward, unmediated way. He avoids parochialism by unearthing from such stories and locations structures that speak to universal experience: the tensions between freedom and a determined society, the sensation of open space and one’s own environment. It is such steadfast belief in the power of technical abstraction to articulate human concerns that gives Lumsdaine’s music its profound beauty.
Though David Lumsdaine has been based in Britain since the early 1950s, his music has remained firmly rooted in the history, culture and landscape of his native Australia. It's invigorating to hear these three major piano works again, especially in such accomplished performances by Mark Knoop; all were important landmarks in Lumsdaine's development through the 1960s and 70s, when his music was evolving rapidly. Kelly Ground, from 1966, was one of the scores that established him as a force to be reckoned with in British new music, and it remains an impressive achievement: an unlikely melding of a musical language acquired from the total serialism of Stockhausen and Boulez with a dramatic scheme based upon the final hours of famous outlaw Ned Kelly. In the 1974 Ruhe Sanfte, Sanfte Ruh', the final chorus from the St Matthew Passion is the scaffolding on which Lumsdaine builds a muscular, uncompromising musical argument. And the more contemplative textures of Cambewarra, from six years later, evoke the landscape and birdsong of New South Wales.
© The Guardian 15 May, 2009
David Lumsdaine belongs to that group of imaginative Australian modernists who adopted and quickly moved beyond the postwar European language.
Broad-ranging in intellectual scope, his music remains more deeply inspired by the Australian landscape than perhaps any other composer. Kelly Ground (1966) is an extended cyclic meditation on Ned Kelly's last day, reminiscent of David Malouf's The Conversations At Curlow Creek. Ruhe Sanfte, Sanfte Ruh brings similarly searching reflectiveness to the final chorus of Bach's St Matthew Passion.
Cambewarra is a great Australian landscape, its background of birdsong recalling the extended-tone poems of Messiaen's Catalogue Of The Birds. Six Postcard Pieces compresses the timescale to fleeting miniatures, which, like Chopin's Preludes or Beethoven's Bagatelles, simply announce an idea and then leave it.
Mark Knoop is a dedicated advocate of cogent precision. Occasionally one could expand the range of tonal colour but the concentration is compelling.
© Peter McCallum
Sydney Morning Herald, April 2009