Through a Glass Darkly

Phillip Scott
Fanfare (US)

How does a contemporary composer continue the line of masterworks from the past? Conservative commentators would claim it is no longer possible; with the presumed collapse of tonality the line was broken, if not wrenched to pieces. Interestingly, Schoenberg always maintained that his own music was evolutionary, not revolutionary; and the “older” Schoenberg’s music becomes, the less radical and the closer to Brahms it can seem to our ears. It is simply a matter of perspective.

One way of maintaining a continuum is for contemporary composers to reference pre-existing music. Luciano Berio did this (as do many others) through quotation, placing snatches of well-known music in a post-modern context—in effect, deconstructing the original. A good example is Robin Holloway’s take on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Gilded Goldbergs, which transports Bach’s theme through many styles and several centuries. Roger Smalley's approach is subtly different. He employs quotation, but in a constructive way: that is, he takes a few bars of a piece from the Romantic period and constructs an entire movement out of them. The result ought to sound second-hand but it does not, due to the composer’s high degree of skill and control, and the freshness of his aural imagination.

Smalley (b. 1943) is English born, but has resided in Australia since the 1970s. He holds a professorial position at the University of Western Australia in Perth, and is very active as a performer and instigator of new music in that city. Judging from this disc alone, he is a fine pianist. Smalley began a series of chamber works using his method of referencing in 1990. The String Quartet No. 2 (1999–2000) and the Piano Quintet (2003) are recent examples. The composer to whom he has turned most often is Chopin, in particular to the Mazurkas.

The Piano Quintet provides a clear example of how Smalley works, notably in a long final movement built on the chromatic harmonic sequence of Chopin’s Mazurka in F Minor, op. 68/4. It first appears briefly in the second movement: a wispy Scherzo that follows a stormy, Schumannesque opening. Then, in the fourth movement, the harmonic sequence is used as the basis for a series of variations in the form of a Chaconne. Each of these variations adopts a genre used by Chopin: waltz, nocturne and so on. (The waltz is a delight.)

Another Chopin Mazurka, this time the one in C Minor, op. 5/3, permeates the texture of the single-movement String Quartet. Here, as the composer aptly expresses it, Chopin “floats to the surface” every so often. The effect echoes the heart-warming appearance of a Bach chorale in Berg’s Violin Concerto, except that the surrounding music in Smalley’s piece is more clearly related. At the same time, the source is distanced by the shift from solo piano to string quartet. So fully is the source material integrated into both these chamber works that the listener forgets to play “spot the quotation.” Smalley’s method is the means, but not the end.

His masterly Horn Trio, written in between the other two, does not reach quite so far into the past, but is constructed in the same way on a thematic fragment taken from the composer’s Contrabassoon Concerto of 1998. The piece derives its form from Schoenberg’s String Trio.

I do not wish to suggest that Smalley’s music resembles the rediscovered chamber œuvre of a 19th-century composer: it doesn’t. Some of it is fragmentary in texture; harmonically it is complex—even atonal—and often the piano and quartet writing suggest that Messiaen and Shostakovich respectively have had an influence, the latter most clearly present in the Quintet. If I were to describe his music literally in one word, it would be “inspired.” That also applies to these committed performances from the original dedicatees, including the composer himself. For the record, the members of the quartet are Natsuko Yoshimoto, James Cuddeford on violins; Jeremy Williams, viola; Niall Brown, cello.

The recording is clear and well balanced, and the production values of the CD notes and packaging are excellent. This release arrived too late for my Want List, but it may sneak into next year’s. I am sure I will still be enjoying and “deconstructing” Smalley’s work in 12 months time.