Carmichael Towards the Light Divine Art DDX21103

Toward the Light
John Carmichael (b. 1930)
Piano Concerto No 2 (2011?)
Piano Trio ‘Toward the Light’ (2020)
Aria for viola and piano (2022)
Contrasts for viola and piano (2022)
Short Cuts for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano (2007)
On the Green for wind nonet (2007)
Antony Gray (piano), St Paul’s Sinfonia / Andrew Morley
rec. 2017-2022, various locations
Divine Art DDX 21103 [80]

Australian composer John Carmichael, who will be 94 this year, found his style early in his career and its neo-Romanticism has not changed in seventy years. There is no reason why it should, as he has a phenomenal musical technique, writes wonderful melodies, and his music provides much needed calm in these difficult times.

He was born in Melbourne, Australia. He studied piano and composition at the University Conservatorium there, followed by two years of piano studies with Marcel Ciampi at the Conservatoire National in Paris. Further composition studies followed with Arthur Benjamin and Anthony Milner in London. He was one of the first group of musicians working for the Council for Music Therapy, for whom he introduced groundbreaking music therapy programmes at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and Netherden Mental Hospital, Surrey. In 1960, he became musical director of the Spanish dance group Eduardo y Navarra, with whom he toured extensively. Much of his music seems imbued with the spirit and rhythms of the dance.  His most well known work is the first piano concerto, the Concierto Folklorico, inspired by his work in flamenco.

This Piano Concerto No 2 is a short work and seems most indebted to his teacher Arthur Benjamin, also an Australian, long resident in the UK.  It is full of memorable tunes and is gloriously orchestrated. Like the first concerto, it has a flamenco influence, with a figure growing out of the cadenza in the first movement being a close relation to works by Albeniz and Falla. It would be a perfect work for the new-look BBC Radio 3’s ‘Friday Night is Music Night’.  Australian pianist Antony Gray plays magnificently, his cascading arpeggios giving Leonard Pennario in Midnight on the Cliffs mode a run for his money.  The St Paul’s Sinfonia, under the extremely gifted conductor Andrew Morely, give no clue as to their ad hoc status and play as though they work together every day.

Towards The Light for piano trio is a companion piece to Carmichael’s Piano Quartet Sea Changes and really is a substantial addition to the repertoire. The first movement is by turns elegiac and turbulent, before ending mysteriously and enigmatically. The elegiac feel is continued in the slow movement, which is beautifully structured. There seems to be some anger or bitterness in the central section, where the violin and cello get to demonstrate their emotive best. The finale does its best to clear the air and provide some sort of positive resolution, though it is not all plain sailing. Ultimately, though, the dynamic wins over the lyrical and the work ends triumphantly in the light. The playing from all three artists is superb, there being a wonderful balance of tone and colour which is magnificent captured by the engineers.

The viola is a difficult instrument to write for and it takes a good composer to make it work. Mr. Carmichael is just such a composer and the twenty-two minutes of music for viola and piano recorded here show the instrument to its advantage. The original work Aria and Finale was written in 1990 for saxophone and piano; the composer later arranged the work for viola and piano. Only the Aria is recorded here. He has done a sterling job in arranging the work, as hearing it now on viola I cannot imagine it on saxophone. The viola lends a particular character to the work, highlighting the darker side in the score. It sings long melodic lines, intertwining with the piano’s substantial contribution. A wide range of moods from sombre to joyous, even playful, provides opportunities for both players to highlight both their technical and expressive skills and the players here revel in it.

The second work, the three movement entitled Contrasts, aims to show the wide range of expressive and technical possibilities of the viola. To emphasise this, each movement is emphatically contrasted. Zephyr conjures a lilting, gentle breeze. Remembering brings sadness of remembered joy and shows just how emotive the viola can be in its lower register. The finale Flamenco is coloured by that extravagant dance style without being mere pastiche.  The contrast between bowed and plucked sounds is particularly effective and there is a vital rhythmic interplay between the duo.

Short Cuts, a divertimento for flute, oboe, clarinet, and piano, does exactly what it says and is diverting. The sound world is reminiscent of the jolly, yet masterful works of Jean Françaix. Each instrument has a solo; then at the ending they all play together.  Various Latin American or Caribbean dance forms are alluded to in very successful pastiches. The piano has a delightful nightclub tango. Despite all the humour, there are also some genuinely touching moments, notably in the extended clarinet and piano number and the duet for oboe and clarinet.  The final chase brings the work to a rousing close.

On the Green, for the unusual combination of wind nonet, rounds the disc off nicely. The inclusion of contrabassoon in the ensemble gives a wonderful richness to the work. After the calm of the nocturnal middle movement, the last movement, which imagines the green as a funfair, brings the work to an exciting and emphatic close.

The liner notes are patchy. They give no dates for composition nor for first performances.  This may be down to the composer, as his website has very few dates on it either. Antony Gray appears as Antony Grey under his photograph. Niggles aside, in these troubled times, it is wonderful to have on disc such life affirming music. It gives me pleasure and it sounds as though it gave pleasure to the players, too. Although recorded over a number of years in different venues, the recorded sound is excellent in all tracks. Life would be better if such music made its way onto the concert platform. 

Paul RW Jackson

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Other instrumentalists:

Morgan Goff (viola), Susan Torke (flute), Claire Hoskins (oboe), Sheila Levy (clarinet), Rachel Horwood (oboe), Jeremy Foster (oboe), Peter Cigleris (clarinet), Anna Hashimoto (clarinet), Mark Smith (horn), Sabrina Pullen (horn), Michael Elderkin (bassoon), Ashley Myall (bassoon), Laura Vincent (contrabassoon)