Through a Glass Darkly

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found (US)

English-born (1943) and trained Roger Smalley moved to Australia in 1974 where he has since become a major figure in contemporary music circles. While he's probably best known as a pianist, he's also a gifted composer as evidenced by the three selections on this recent release from Melba Recordings. He writes modern, tonally accessible music that's intellectually challenging as well as emotionally captivating.

The concert begins with his four-movement piano quintet of 2003, which is beset with references to the first few measures of Chopin's last mazurka (Op. 68, No. 4). The agitated first movement, entitled "Overture," conjures up images of some silent movie villain with a long mustache and flowing black cape. There's a nuits d'été air about the quirky, diminutive intermezzo, where fireflies flash fragments of the mazurka. It's quoted more fully in the mercurial scherzo, which magically evaporates into thin air.

The finale is the longest as well as the most ingenious part of the quintet. And while it's a real thought piece, it's also dramatically absorbing. Here the mazurka is the subject of a chaconne as well as a sequence of seven variations that appear above it. What's more, the variations are cast in forms that were commonly used by Chopin (polonaise, waltz, etc.)!

The three-movement trio for horn, violin and piano completed in 2002, is a welcome addition to the handful of contemporary ones by the likes of Lennox Berkeley (1954), Don Banks (1962), Gyorgy Ligeti (1962) and Robert Simpson (1984). It has the musical equivalent of a cinematic flashback where the seed melody that’s the basis for the twelve-tone row with which it begins, and for that matter the whole piece, doesn't appear until the second movement.

The opening allegro is a twitchy, free sonata form construct which remains tonally grounded despite its dodecaphonic start. But there are some pretty intense chromatic and rhythmic developmental episodes that place considerable demands on each of the performers.

The second movement, entitled "Mirror Variations," is the centerpiece of the trio, and begins with the seed melody mentioned above played by the horn. Seventeen variations follow, culminating in a frenetic passage with horn glissandi. This gradually subsides as the violin and horn become more melancholy and introduce a canon involving the seed and its inversion, or mirror image (whence the title). The movement ends in medias res with the piano playing a chorale based on the seed.

The finale is the most lyrical part of the work where there are once again remembrances of the seed melody. It gets off to a churning start and contains a couple of hyper episodes full of spectacular horn fireworks. One of these [track-7, beginning at 02:13] may bring Shostakovich to mind. Then the trio suddenly expires with an inconclusive chord on the piano, bringing this exceptional chamber creation to an untimely end.

The concluding selection is Smalley's second string quartet completed in 2000, which the composer tells us was a precursor of the above quintet. Like its successor there are thematic links to Chopin via another of his mazurkas (Op. 56, No. 3). Smalley uses fragments of it as the melodic DNA for this twenty-minute, one movement work. It opens slowly and mysteriously, emerging from swirling mists with birdlike glissandi, but the pace soon quickens with hints of Chopin.

Smalley then constructs a highly chromatic, mesmerizing masterpiece that's exceptional for its seamlessness. There are haunting allusions to the mazurka, and one can only marvel at the composer's ability to conceive a totally integrated quartet in a single extended span. In some ways it may remind you of Luciano Berio's (1925-2003) remarkable Rendering (1989-90), where he surrounds insular sketches of Schubert's uncompleted tenth symphony with a symphonic sea of his own making.

All of the performances are superb and include the composer himself as pianist in the quintet and trio. The Australian String Quartet accompanies him in the former and is featured in the quartet, which it commissioned. The very talented hornist Darryl Poulsen , who commissioned the trio, is joined in it by Australian virtuoso violinist Paul Wright . With a lineup like that, these performances must be considered definitive.

Since each of these works was recorded at a different location, you'd expect variations in their sonic images. But it would appear the Australian engineers have managed to keep acoustic incongruities to a minimum ... The piano sound is immaculate and well-rounded, the horn magnificently captured in all its obstreperousness, and the strings are totally natural. This is a demonstration quality disc that will please audiophiles as well as modern music enthusiasts.