bird spirit dreaming davinci

Bird Spirit Dreaming
Australian Music for Soprano Saxophone and Piano
HD Duo
Kevin Man (percussion), Evgeny Sorkin (violin), Julian Smiles (cello)
rec. 2022, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Australia
Da Vinci Classics C00813 [73]

Peter Sculthorpe, like many composers of his generation, wrote early works that were challenging for both audience and performers alike. Later, his style mellowed and at the time of his death he was seen as the doyen of Australian composers. This was partly due to his development of a style that owed more to the Australian landscape and the music of its Pacific neighbours than the Western musical tradition. Clearly, Australians are culturally advanced, since this short work originally for saxophone and strings was commissioned to celebrate ten years of the Rockpool Restaurant in Sydney. I can think of no other restaurant which has commissioned a work from a major composer to celebrate a landmark event. The arrangement here for saxophone and piano trio works very well.  Sculthorpe tried to capture the calm ambience of the restaurant tinged with Asiatic touches. A Balinese sounding ostinato figure in the piano provides a solid base for the other instruments to sail above it. The harmonic glissandi on the violin and cello provide poetic impressions of swooping sea birds.

Ross Edwards Bird Spirit Dreaming first appeared in 2002 as an oboe concerto and this seems to be an arrangement of that work by the HD Duo (David Howie (soprano saxophone), Michael Duke (piano)).  Strangely, the liner notes are for the oboe concerto and not this version for saxophone, piano and percussion.  After early dalliances with modernism Edwards, shocked the musical establishment in 1982 with his Piano Concerto, which was resolutely tonal, melodic, and full of lively, ever-changing dance rhythms.  It garnered some terrible reviews – its UK premiere at the 1988 Proms was castigated – but Edwards had found his style and thankfully for listeners he has stuck to his inner voice, and over the last forty years has produced numerous works which have proven popular with audiences and performers alike. 

The Oboe Concerto has theatrical effects built into the score, there being special requests in lighting, and the soloist is asked to move around the stage. Such possibilities are not available on CD, so we have to rely on musicianship alone and here it is considerable. The first movement called Wild Bird opens with a free rhapsodic cadenza for the saxophone slowly joined by a more sedate piano accompaniment.  They gradually join into an enticing duet to end the movement. This is followed by ‘Serenade and Love Duet’ is a beautiful sequence of music for a calm, warm night. The melodic material is influenced by Middle Eastern scales and the music draws us in as the players shape the music with great introspection. The last movement is one of Edward’s dance movements, full of ever-changing rhythms and slinky, wide raging melodies. It is a tremendous challenge to keep in time and for the soloist to navigate the full range of the instrument while maintaining a silky tone. The richer tone colours of the saxophone enticingly draw out the melodic material, particularly in the lower register, where the oboe can sound quite raw. The duo are helped along by the presence of a percussionist on Australian Aboriginal clapping sticks and darbuka.  It is a tour de force which, while it works well for these reduced forces, still makes me miss the sounds of Mr Edwards’ quirky orchestrations.

In the first of the two works by Brenton Broadstock, the lyrical I touched your glistening tears, the saxophone demonstrates the versatility of its sound spectrum, one minute a French horn, the next a soaring clarinet. The duo, joined by cellist Julian Smiles, make some impressively orchestral textures. Based on the composer’s experience of looking after his multiply disabled son, what could have been maudlin is deeply moving.  The second work, An endless ripple, from twenty years later, is more minimal in outlook, though no more gently lyrical.  A simple gamelan-like figure on piano is picked up and developed. With a careful use of sustaining pedal, a myriad of ripples are created in space.

Mathew Hindson’s Night Pieces begins with the lyrical Night Song in which the piano provides quite a simple accompaniment over which Mr Howie is able to demonstrate amazing breath control and a silky tone with long phrased melodies. The second piece Night Dance comes as quite a shock, being as violent as the first is gentle. There are crashing dissonant chords on the piano, over blown multiphonic squawks and bends on the saxophone, then the saxophone introduces a middle eastern dance-like melody with microtonal inflections and key pops. It sounds ferociously difficult to play, particularly the micro tones, which Mr Howie pitches perfectly.

On his website, Lyle Chan tells us that he will only ever write one work for any combination of instruments. So this, his only work for soprano saxophone and piano, was commissioned for this disc to replace what was originally to be an arrangement of Ravel’s Sonatine for piano. The work begins with an almost jazzy, improvisatory feel to it, in which Mr Howie seems entirely confident.  A couple of sections with raucous multiphonics on the saxophone and a tiny bit of microtonality, apparently inspired from part of Bertrand’s poem ‘Gaspard de la nuit’, just seem attention-seeking in the context of rather a lovely work. The whole piece is beautifully shaped by the duo.

Mathew Orlovich’s Cloud Nine opens with a movement entitled ‘Joyous’ – and with its invigorating energy reminiscent of some of Michale Torke’s livelier works, it is just that. ‘Dark and Stormy’ is more dark than stormy and the clarinet’s klezmer-inflected scales create a turbulent landscape.  There is some very clever use of the piano’s resonance in sustaining a background that is only just audible. The work ends with ‘Playful’, another high-energy movement which in its short duration manages to recap and play with material form the opening movement. The whole work, with its rapidly changing rhythms and registers, sounds fiendishly difficult to play but of course the seasoned HD Duo bring it off to perfection.

The liner notes are incredibly frustrating as they provide patchy details of dates and premieres and as I said earlier, those for the Edwards work are for the Oboe Concerto not this version. That said, this is a fascinating and rewarding disc that shows off not just the extraordinary skills of the HD Duo and their friends, but the extraordinary variety found in contemporary Australian music.

Paul RW Jackson

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Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014)
Rockpool Dreaming (1999) arr. by HD Duo
Ross Edwards (b. 1943)
Bird Spirit Dreaming (2002)arr. by HD Duo
Brenton Broadstock (b. 1952)
I touched your glistening tear’ (1998)
Matthew Hindson (b. 1968)
Night Piece’ (1998)
Brenton Broadstock
An endless ripple I’ (2018)
Lyle Chan
The Perfumed Calyx (2022)
Matthew Orlovich (b. 1970)
Cloud Nine (2021)