Through a Glass Darkly

Colin Clarke
Tempo (UK)

Roger Smalley studied composition with Peter Racine Fricker and John White at the RCM, subsequently taking private lessons with Alexander Goehr before frequenting Cologne and Darmstadt (he also studied with Stockhausen in Cologne). In the mid-1970s, Smalley emigrated to Australia, where his works are regularly performed. Melba Recordings Pty Ltd is based in Victoria.

The title of this disc is ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, a quote from Corinthians that zooms in on humankind’s clouded perspective. Recontextualisation and deconstruction of pre-extant material is a central idea of Smalley’s thought, and the Piano Quintet (2003) incorporates one of Smalley’s favoured compositional techniques, that of requestioning a musical fragment (from another composer or one of his own works) and weaving into his own musical argument. If the fragment comes from a work that was originally tonal, as in the Chopin references we experience on this disc, Smalley has to battle, compositionally, with the integration of these tonal references into his own language—a problem that invites in questions of harmonic functionality and directionality, and their loss. Here in the Quintet, the first eight bars of Chopin’s Mazurka in F minor, Op. 68 No. 4 crops up in the third movement (scherzo); its chromatic harmonies also form the basis of the final chaconne. The first three movements (Overture, Intermezzo and Scherzo) are all relatively brief; the final chaconne equals their combined duration. The angular, energetically leaping Overture seems restless, while the Intermezzo continues the feeling of unrest via its fragmentary gestures. The finale is essentially a suite of character pieces utilising types used by Chopin. References to Chopin himself vary from the overt to the semi-concealed. Beauty of sound and of harmony seems to be a determining factor here, something which heightens the feeling of reflective Rückblick.   

The Horn Trio of 2000-2002, commissioned by the solo horn player on this recording, again reuses older material, but this time the theme comes from another work by Smalley. He takes the harp part from the very end of his Contrabassoon Concerto (1998), heard here in its barest form on the solo horn at the opening of the second movement (a set of 17 ‘Mirror Variations’). The first movement is built on a 12-note row derived from this theme, the musical material being stacked on the skeleton of a sonata form; the finale attempts to reinterpret the row in tonal terms by re-reading it as a set of ‘tonalities’. Darryl Poulsen is a real virtuoso. He is just as agile in the tricky lower register as he is in the stratosphere, and his slow, legato lines in the labyrinthine ‘Mirror Variations’ show none of the lumpiness easily associated with this instrument. The dramatic gestures of the finale are rendered with gusto.

Poulsen seems only available on disc elsewhere as listed soloist in the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 on Channel Classics 15398 (with the Australian CO and Pieter Wispelwey as cellist). Based on present evidence, it would be good to hear more from him, especially since his biography refers to his commissioning of new works for the horn.

The single-movement String Quartet No. 2 (1999) was commissioned by the Australian String Quartet. Again, the ghost of Chopin is present (here, the Mazurka Op. 56 No. 3, bars 181-189) and, although Smalley does not acknowledge this in his notes, Schubert and (in the work’s final minutes) late Shostakovich. There is no coat-hanging of material, Schoenberg-like, onto older forms here—instead, there is an intuitively led feel to the on-going argument. The performance is exemplary in its concentration and in its build-up of angst. Moments of repose are sweetly delivered, while gestures that overtly refer back to earlier musics attain the utmost poignancy.

The recordings of all three pieces (the Quintet and the Trio hail from Perth, the Quartet from Adelaide) are exemplary in terms of clarity and distancing.