Through a Glass Darkly

Carla Rees
MusicWeb International (UK)

The works on this disc are unified by Smalley’s use of fragments of material from earlier works by composers, such as Chopin. This is a style that Smalley has developed since emigrating to Australia in the 1970s and the results are both fascinating and highly successful.

The Piano Quintet is an enjoyable work with a subtle fusion of quotations from Chopin’s F minor Mazurka with Smalley’s contemporary style. The music has a bright, fresh feel and an energetic opening, with an almost Reichian string quartet part heard against an angular piano line. The two central movements are a short intermezzo, which uses short fragments of melody and rhythm, and a light scherzo. The final movement is the longest of the four, and comes in the form of a Chaconne with variations. The chord progression comes from Chopin, and each of the variations is based on a musical style in which Chopin composed. Viewed as a compositional exercise, this demonstrates the craftsmanship of Roger Smalley—the quotes feel natural and unforced, and he moves seamlessly from his own language into Chopin’s. The playing is of a high standard, with the composer giving a strong performance at the piano and the Australian String Quartet communicating Smalley’s music very well.

The central work on the disc is the perhaps unusual Trio for horn, violin and piano. This is potentially a problematic instrumental combination, as one would expect the horn to obliterate the violin, but Smalley’s scoring is meticulous and any balance problems are carefully handled. The different tone colours of the instruments are offset against each other well, with the warm, rounded sound of the horn contrasting against Smalley’s biting and at times edgy violin writing. The piano serves to unify the ensemble and secure a blend between the two other instruments. The opening of the Mirror Variations is particularly haunting, with a horn solo giving way to the piano. The quoted material used in this piece comes from Smalley’s own work, and this is the music heard on the horn at the beginning of this central movement. This is another well crafted piece which has a strong sense of Smalley as an academic composer, meant in the best possible way, whereby the music is given intelligent consideration during the compositional process in order to ensure a convincing artistic result. The playing is consistently excellent, with Darryl Poulsen providing some beautifully phrased horn playing.

The final work on this disc is Smalley’s Second String Quartet, which was commissioned in 1999 by the Australian String Quartet, who perform it here. Again using Chopin’s material as a basis, this single movement work of nearly 20 minute’s duration uses music from the Op. 56 No. 3 Mazurka in C minor. The harmonic language blends well with Smalley’s own and moments of tonality help to guide the ear through the work. This is another excellent performance from the Australian String Quartet, who make light work of the complex changes of mood and textures to bring the work’s sense of unity of style to the audience. This is a highly enjoyable work in which Smalley uses elements of the old and the new to create something entirely his own. The music is lyrical and expressive, well recorded and beautifully played. Well worth exploring.