|Here is something rather special - the string quartets of Peter Sculthorpe, up to and including the eleventh of 1990, recorded in the composer's presence by an ensemble who are totally inside this fascinating music. Previous efforts by the Kronos and Brodsky quartets notwithstanding, this pair of discs is indispensable for anyone who regards the 20th century string quartet as a key element in the lifeblood of their ongoing personal musical education and experience. Sculthorpe has a unique way of melding together European, Australasian and Oriental influences into something which is simultaneously both strikingly original and reassuringly familiar. This perhaps reflects the colonial history of his homeland, as did the great and still undervalued Percy Grainger before him.|
The first five quartets, written in the forties and fifties, remain only as a series of fragments, recorded here as an appendix to the later quartets on volume 2. The intact No. 6 is an occasionally harsh but predominantly lyrical, if melancholy work. It has three movements, with lento being the frequent and operative word used to describe most of its duration. This is austere but not forbidding music, revealing at this stage a profound spiritual element that pervades all Sculthorpe's greatest works (of which I believe there are many). The closing bars of the piece are a truly cathartic listen. The seventh which follows is closely related to the Sun Music series and was originally entitled Teotihuacan after the Mexican pyramid site. Its single movement structure is a little more abstract than that of its predecessor yet it is notable for its introduction of glissandi to evoke birdsong and other sounds of nature - one of the composer's later trademarks.
The quartet No. 8 represents Sculthorpe's increasing interest in the sounds of the Pacific Rim with a second movement based on the music of the "Balinese rice pounding ritual". This highly rhythmic section is an invigorating listen although it juxtaposes more contemplative, lamenting viola sounds against the pizzicato element. After a con dolore central movement, Sculthorpe then returns to the highly "percussive" sounds of the first part of the second. I am reminded somewhat of Kevin Volansí White Man Sleeps but this music is much less upbeat, often more harrowing, yet gripping nonetheless. The final movement again is steeped in the "birdsong glissandi" mentioned above. String Quartet No. 9, also in one movement, provides something of a bridge to the later, more immediate works featured on Volume 2, with the faster rhythmic sections approximating more to the less mainstream figures of American "minimalism" - Lou Harrison? The late Californian composer was, of course, also much enamoured with the musics of the Pacific Rim.
I should now mention that volume 1 opens with two arrangements: the first from the composer's Irkanda series, in this case the fourth, and the other from his radiophonic score The Fifth Continent (based around readings from D.H. Lawrence's Kangaroo novel). The former, like the others in its set, evokes superbly the meaning of its aboriginal title, 'a remote and lonely place'. This is a concept that has become increasingly important to Sculthorpe in many of his works in recent years. Small Town, by contrast, is a gorgeous, gently rocking, sweet toned piece (arranged by David Matthews). It interpolates The Last Post, in classic Charles Ives style, and is the track on this disc which I can relate most directly to Sculthorpe's often stated indebtedness to Mahler, albeit the Mahler of the Wunderhorn rather than the Venice lagoon.
Volume 2 opens with the tenth quartet which was written for the Kronos Quartet and brings together old and new world influences. It continues the trend to incorporate more overtly melodic material. Here the analogy with Kevin Volans is, I feel, more tangible. This is still not easy listening (heaven forbid!) but the combination of the frenetic but tuneful Sun Songs and the more serene, if sometimes mildly dissonant Chorales, makes for a satisfying listen. It shows its composer straddling the traditions of "indigenous tribal music" and European art music with equal ease. Oh and, incidentally, the final movement could almost be entitled "John Adams in Australia" - marvellous, life-affirming music, one of the very best parts of this pair of discs so far!
This brings us on to the most recent original work included here, Jabiru Dreaming (Quartet No. 11), which represents one of the first flowerings of what I would regard as Sculthorpe's mature or, at least, his current style. Heavily influenced by the landscapes and peoples of the far north of Australia and beyond (Torres Strait islanders etc.), this quartet is a companion piece to From Nourlangie, Into the Dreaming etc. Notice the use of the word "dreaming" in many recent compositions, alluding, I would imagine, to the "dreamtime" of the creation myths of the Aboriginal peoples the composer now draws so effectively on for his artistic inspirations. The pentatonic dance tunes, the bird and insect sounds are now in full flow but are used with total artistic integrity and absolutely not as musical tourism. This is the sound of a man who has found his true voice, although even his first efforts went far beyond those of many contemporaries, in their scope, vision and purity of utterance. If you choose to buy this disc, and I recommend it wholeheartedly, also consider purchasing the Brodksy Quartet disc with Anne Sofie von Otter (Vanguard Classics 99215) which, as well as containing an equally valid performance of Jaribu, also includes Island Dreaming, the thirteenth quartet, plus the eighth and many charming shorter pieces (Maranoa Lullaby is a tiny gem!).
The remainder of the second volume is taken up with mainly pastoral, even meditative, fragments from the earlier quartets. They remind us of both his fondness for Mahler and of the time he spent studying in England (with Rubbra), as well as his Tasmanian childhood. However, amongst these lies the string quartet version of the classic Earth Cry which is rather more animated, albeit in a very melodic way, than its close companions. Sculthorpe himself describes it as "quick and joyous" with which I would not disagree. I should also mention the two Hill Songs which contrast with and complement Percy Grainger's pieces of the same name perfectly. While Grainger was thinking of bagpipes, Sculthorpe is in idyllic mode. Like virtually everything else I have ever heard by this composer, I find these discs recommendable without reservation. I encourage all readers to make their acquaintance at any opportunity. Here is a genuine and important voice. Exceptional.
© Neil Horner
Classical Music on the Web
A rewarding anthology spanning some four decades and more, from the Tenth and Eleventh Quartets of 1983 and 1990 (both written for the Kronos) all the way back to Sculthorpe's own reconstructions of individual movements from his first four quartets (teenage efforts, none of which have survived intact). The stunning Earth Cry (1986) sounds even more effective in its original orchestral guise (11/95), but there's no gainsaying the vibrant commitment and superior polish displayed by the Goldner Quartet. Truthful sound and balance.
Peter Sculthorpe’s string quartets present a fascinating overview of the work of one of Australia’s most influential and innovative composers.
Believing European models inappropriate for Australian composers, Sculthorpe has approached composition from a unique perspective, creating a sound world that is powerfully evocative and distinctly Australian, even when divorced from extra-musical associations.
Not that Sculthorpe would wish for this separation as is shown by his comments on the quartet Earth Cry. Here, the message is too important and integral to his underlying philosophy to be discarded: “A bogus national identity and its commercialisation have obscured the true breadth of our culture. Perhaps now we need to attune ourselves to this continent, to listen to the cry of the earth, as the Aborigines have done for thousands of years.” Earth Cry expresses both profound grief and rage at the destruction of the land and indigenous culture.
Sculthorpe’s attraction to the Australian landscape in all its manifestations, from remote desert scenes to lush vistas alive with the sounds of birds and insects, led to a series of “Kakadu-inspired” works, of which Jabiru Dreaming is an example. Exploring the contrast of colonising and indigenous cultures, Quartet No. 10 portrays the duality in alternating blocks of sound. Both quartets demonstrate the composer’s mastery of textural variation and skill in sustaining non-developmental patterns particularly via the use of repetitive ritualistic rhythms.
The selections of movements from Sculthorpe’s earliest quartets, dating from the 1940s, are interesting for the glimpse they provide into the early development of the composer. Showing a propensity for flexible scoring, Morning Son, Autumn Song and Saibai are arrangements from earlier works. Like Hills Songs 1 and 2, they induce a more sentimental mood, less weighed down by the convictions underpinning the more serious works.
The performances by the Goldner String Quartet are excellent, making it apparent through their manipulation of colour and intensity why Sculthorpe should describe much of his music as “like extended songs, both sorrowgul and joyful, songs for this earth, for the survival of this planet.”
Herald-Sun February 1998