Through a Glass Darkly

Phil Vendy
2MBS Fine Music (Australia)
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CD packaging is getting good enough to eat, and the notes in this one can actually be read! Two starts before it even starts playing. But other stars quickly flash on as chattering strings and searching piano pull us instantly into the four-movement Quintet. It opens busily, almost breathlessly, with something of a cinematic ambience about it. The instruments hunt for something that they never quite find, and are never quite able to settle, which the composer himself attributes to a tendency to sometimes leave things intentionally inconclusive. He refers to the Quintet being a set of references to Chopin, but modern tonality and structure keep it far ahead of being a historic throw-back. Distance between the historic references built into the Quintet, and the more contemporary notation of the three-movement Trio, is established by the horn. In this piece, Smalley exploits his own themes in depth, especially in the long central movement of variations. The three instruments are involved in constant interplay right to the end, supporting each other as they tackle frequent sonic barricades, flowing on through into moments of calmer reflection. The Quartet all happens in one movement, so is the longest single body of work on the CD, Smalley again giving Chopin the nod for providing its compositional basis. The playing is nicely gruff, teasing out all the textures the performers can find. These works make up an impressive showcase for Smalley. His music, while not demanding or hard to listen to, is absorbing and inventive.