Through a Glass Darkly

Rob Barnett
Music Web International (UK)

Roger Smalley was born near Manchester and along with Tim Souster and a host of thrawn stalwarts was at the keen edge of the electronic avant-garde in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His and Souster’s Intermodulation ensemble championed the music of Cornelius Cardew, Terry Riley, Frederick Rzewski, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Christian Wolff. Time and his move to Australia in 1974 have dealt a transformational effect on his music. Smalley's works now strike an accommodation with melody as his Piano Concerto—there is a second now—and Symphony have shown.
These three chamber works, written around 1999–2003, provide further confirmation of the creative energy he finds in a free and modified embrace with tangy tonality. Start with the Piano Quintet with its first movement in constant torrential motion and its language caught in Mennin-like fury between Beethoven and Shostakovich. The skittering Bartókian Intermezzo leads to a skeletally eerie scherzo accommodating much magically quiet writing. The finale is a potently atmospheric piece and is the longest of the four movements. It's haunted, yearning music—always troubled, never at peace. The notes tell us that the Chopin Mazurka Op. 68 No. 4 is referenced. Indeed Chopin is a shadowy presence in all three of these pieces. You can hear this in its most frank if refracted form in the Quintet’s final Chaconne with Variations which ends the piece in a Szymanowski-like trembling whisper. It's very affecting. The Trio starts with a jewelled torrent of writing for piano and violin redolent of the Intermezzo of the Quintet but more vehement. And vehement is the word for the horn line here which is celebratory, melodic and ardent—not at all difficult. The Mirror Variations central movement is pleasing indeed. The three movement Trio was commissioned by the horn player in this recording. It struck me that this piece could also work very well as a Horn Concerto. It is full of intriguing incident as is the single movement String Quartet No. 2 which in fact includes some of the most thorny writing of the three works featured here.
The String Quartet No. 2 was premiered at the Adelaide Festival in 2002. The Trio is dedicated 'to Darryl & Paul ' and was first performed at the Perth, Octagon Theatre on 1 August 2002. The Piano Quintet was a John Bishop Memorial Commission for 2004 and was premiered at the Adelaide Festival, Adelaide Town Hall on 10 March 2004. The performers at these premieres are the same as those who made these recordings. Two of the works involve the composer as performer. In years to come this disc will also have documentary historic significance.
The booklet with generous notes is bound into the stiff card cover. Melba provide an answer to the criticism of the fragility of these digipacks by supplying a sturdy transparent sleeve into which the ‘pack’ slips.
A stunningly vivid recording of three rewarding contemporary works from a one-time wolverine of the wilderness who is now a lion of a different temperament.