Australian settings of Judith Wright
$23 (Australian dollars)
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|Elizabeth Campbell has long been a tireless promoter of Australian art song. Together with Tony Fogg, back in the 80s, she presented a series of recitals devoted to this genre (From Nathan To Now). Two decades later she is committing some of this energy and expertise to a recording of songs that set the poetry of Australia’s most loved poet, Judith Wright. The repertoire ranges from a song cycle by Margaret Sutherland, to a beautiful new cycle by Richard Mills (specially commissioned for this recording), to Ross Edwards’ wonderfully evocative The Lost Man from his 2nd Symphony, and Moya Henderson’s intriguing quartet arrangement of Woman’s Song in which Ms Campbell sings all four parts. There is also Sutherland’s setting of The World and the Child, for voice with string trio, and Ian Munro’s own settings of two poems.|
This is a landmark recording by one of Australia’s favourite singers, together with the ever versatile Ian Munro at the piano, and a significant addition to the recorded repertoire. It was made possible by funding from the Music Fund of the Australia Council and a significant private donation.
|Margaret Sutherland||6 Australian Songs|
|The World and the Child|
Marina Marsden - violin; Justine Wickham - viola; Susan Blake - cello
|Ross Edwards||The Lost Man (from Symphony no 2: Earth Spirit Songs)|
|Richard Mills||Woman to Man |
|Moya Henderson||Woman’s Song |
The track on this CD most relevant to readers of Stringendo is The World and the Child by Margaret Sutherland. This is a re-release of a track on an earlier Tall Poppies recording of Sutherland's string chamber music (TP116). Although there is a version for two violins, cello and voice, Marina Marsden (violin), Justine Wickham (viola) and Susan Blake (cello) have wisely chosen the string trio version. This is a haunting and melancholy work which needs the dark viola timbre. Over a recurring gentle ostinato, Elizabeth Campbell's distinctive voice and excellent diction weave a homogeneous fluid line, inviting the string trio to be not just accompaniment but equal partners. Other composers represented on this CD include Ross Edwards, Richard Mills, Ian Munro and Moya Henderson. For those who enjoy hearing moving poetry sung to good music by an intelligent musician, this is a highly recommended recording.
This disc brings together the music of some major Australian composers with the poetry of Australia's most important poets. There are two song sets: Margaret Sutherland's Six Australian Songs (1950-1963), Richard Mills's Woman to Man (no date given) both of which include Wright's eponymous Woman's Song. There is more Sutherland in the cantata The World and the Child (1959) with Marina Marsden (violin), Justine Wickham (viola) and Susan Blake (cello), an arrangement for voice and piano by Ross Edwards of his setting of The Lost Man (originally in his Symphony No. 2), two songs from 1992 by Ian Munro, and a final setting of Woman's Song by Moya Henderson.
It is wonderful to have a recording of the Six Australian Songs of Sutherland. These are arguably the strongest of this composer's songs, and certainly allied to the strongest poetry. As Gordon Kerry's liner notes point out, they represent her distinctive musical language, a 'diatonic idiom with mild but pervasive dissonance', and are based around poems which express some of Wright's themes of enlightenment in the midst of darkness, empathy with the nature and society's outcast and 'the "coeval" nature of love and chaos' as seen in Woman's Song. They are vocally challenging songs because of their sometimes awkward word setting and thick, angular textures, but on this recording are some of the most satisfying performances.
The Sutherland cantata with string trio, The World and the Child, uses similar musical and vocal gestures, writ dark with the impact of the poetic exploration of the child's world which is heavy with the import of impending struggle. The strings' colour is poetically expressive and the performances persuasive.
There is a clear affinity between the final cry of the Sutherland and Ross Edwards's setting of The Lost Man. The textual exploration of the inner journey, this time with strong Christian imagery allied to dark allusions to nature and finding the place 'between breath and death the sun by which you live'. Musically and vocally, the song's stillness and low tessitura lend further beauty to the poetry.
Richard Mills cycle (song set) finds much of the colouristic expressivity of the poetry it sets, with particular joys to be found in the tonal variety of the pianistic writing and performance under the hands of Ian Munro. The vocal tessitura is often high here: the effect is one of a certain emotional dissociation, and its place on the disc is at a point when one wonders why the Australian composers represented here seem to be so uninterested in pulse and rhythmic contrast. Nevertheless, Woman to Man is a welcome addition to the concert repertoire for singers from an important Australian composer of vocal music.
This recital ends with lan Munro's two songs and a delightful if tricky performance by multiple (or multi-tracked) Elizabeth Campbells of Moya Henderson's canonic setting of Woman's Song. They complete another of Tall Poppies' and these performers' important contributions to recording the songs of this country. Perhaps most importantly, they are a splendid reminder of the power of the literary vision of Judith Wright.
Music Forum August 2007
The track on this CD most relevant to readers of Stringendo is The World and the Child by Margaret Sutherland. This is a re-release of a track on an earlier Tall Poppies recording of Sutherland's string chamber music (TP116). Although there is a version for two violins, cello and voice, Marina Marsden (violin), Justine Wickham (viola) and Susan Blake (cello) have wisely chosen the string trio version. This is a haunting and melancholy work which needs the dark viola timbre. Over a recurring gentle ostinato, Elizabeth Campbell's distinctive voice and excellent diction weave a homogeneous fluid line, inviting the string trio to he not just accompaniment but equal partners. Other composers represented on this CD include Ross Edwards, Richard Mills, Ian Munro and Moya Henderson. For those who enjoy hearing moving poetry sung to good music by an intelligent musician, this is a highly recommended recording.
Born in 1915, Judith Wright became one of Australia’s most important poets. Her work is striking both for the power with which it confronts the relations between Man and Nature and for the almost daring sensitivity with which it deals with human love. Her best work has a precision of language and an impressive formal sense. She became a vigorously active environmentalist and a campaigner for aboriginal land rights, especially in the last forty years of her life (she died in 2000). It is right and proper that her work should have attracted the attention of Australian composers and this interesting CD samples some of the resulting settings.
As well as settings of individual songs there are two song-cycles here. Margaret Sutherland’s 6 Australian Songs is perhaps unified (textually) only by the sensibility of its common source. Here are Wright’s responsiveness to the natural world (‘Bullocky’, ‘Winter Kestrel’), her powerful love poetry (‘Woman’s Song’) and her characteristic compassion (‘The Twins’, ‘The Old Prison’). Here, too, is her almost mystical fascination with the paradoxically illuminative power of darkness (‘Midnight’), with its tremendous opening stanza, both very personal and deeply traditional:
Darkness where I find my sight,
shadowless and burning night,
here where death and life are met
is the fire of being set.
In 1923 Sutherland visited Europe, spending time in Vienna and London especially, where she was befriended by Sir Arnold Bax. She returned to Australia in 1925 and was, for the rest of her life, a potent presence in the musical life of her homeland. She was a modernist by inclination, and a woman; two facts which did little to endear her to the Australian establishment. Recognition of her work came pretty late in her life. 1997 saw the publication of David Symons’ book The Music of Margaret Sutherland (Currency Press, Sydney), which argues that she was the first native Australian to work, in Australia, in idioms akin to those of her contemporaries in Europe. Symons’ book contains an excellent discussion of Sutherland’s solo songs. These settings of Wright have some quirky harmonies, some unexpected melodic leaps and display a highly intelligent responsiveness to the details of the texts. There are many very effective moments of word painting, but such details are never allowed to obscure a larger musical logic.
In his booklet notes Gordon Kerry suggestively describes Richard Mills’ Woman to Man as "a kind of Australian Frauenliebe und –leben". What he means, I take it, is that in his choice of texts – using poems collected between 1946 and 1953 - Mills has created a female testimony to the experience of love (and Wright’s poems are surely not inferior to those of Adalbert Von Chamisso). The settings by Mills, who studied with Edmund Rubbra, are everywhere sympathetic, rising to moments of great intensity, well performed by Elizabeth Campbell and Ian Munro. The setting of Wright’s ‘A Song to Sing You’ is particularly fine, the text’s self-referential allusions to its own creation are nicely handled and the piano part, in particular, responds unobtrusively to the poem’s extensive imagery from nature.
Of the individual poems by Wright, Margaret Sutherland’s setting of ‘The World and the Child’ is the most substantial. What must be the same performance was previously issued on Tall Poppies TP116 (see review), who pointed to affinities with Britten, Arnold Cooke and William Alwyn in the attempt to give an idea of the way it works. It is a fine piece, in which the writing for string trio is quite lovely, not least in a brief instrumental postlude. ‘The World and the Child’ brings the best out of Elizabeth Campbell; a moving meditation on childhood innocence and experience, on death and the world, it is, for me, the highlight of this CD, a minor masterpiece which deserves to be far better known.
‘The Lost Man’ is an arrangement for voice and piano of a setting which appears in the Second Symphony by Ross Edwards. It is done with subtlety and restraint, for all the rich abundance of Wright’s language. I should like to hear the Symphony of which it is part. Ian Munro’s two settings are thoroughly assured – the piano writing in ‘The Forest’ is especially effective – but perhaps they add less to one’s understanding of their texts than is the case with some of the works already discussed. The same is true of Moya Henderson’s brief setting of ‘Woman’s Song’, written as a canon for 4-part women's choir – here all parts are sung by Elizabeth Campbell.
There is nothing here that is less than interesting, and the work of Margaret Sutherland is outstanding. Elizabeth Campbell sings with astute understanding and technical certainty and Ian Munro does a magnificent job as accompanist. Full texts are included.
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