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CD Review

Richard Meale

ABC Classics 8.770015

Orchestral Works

  • Scenes from Mer de Glace
  • Viridian
  • Symphony #1
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra/David Porcelijn
ABC Classics 8.770015
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If you think that all modern classical music is actually 'music to watch lava lamps by' this will be a breath of fresh air. Richard Meale is not listed in the Schwann Opus (but what else is new?) nor is he mentioned in the latest Penguin Guide to Compact Discs. In fact, what I know of him comes from the insert notes to this CD. He deserves far greater note and I hope this disc is a harbinger of more to come.

The disc contains three of Richard Meale's orchestral works. The sound on the disc is perfect, excellent detail and just the right amount of reverberation. The orchestra plays the music for all it's worth. I will discuss the music in some detail in an attempt to introduce you to the sound world herein. In the first piece, I will quote what is in the insert notes and then offer my reactions to each movement as they go.

The movements of Mer de Glace played here reflect certain scenes from the opera. It has something to do with Frankenstein, but the notes here don't really give you a good idea of the plot of the opera's plot. The music, though, is moving. First is On the Mer de Glace:

The icy magnificence of the glacier at Mont Blanc provides the dramatic backdrop for the reflections of the aging Claire Clairmont (stepsister to Mary Shelly and lover to Byron), accompanied by the ghosts of Mary and Shelly. Mont Blanc presides as the eternal and magisterial representative of infinity.

Ironically, I write these comments with my Mt. Blanc pen. What I hear in this movement is the perfect music to accompany a movie of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. There is a timeless here that is somewhat unsettling. This is music that reminds you of Debussy, but it is the Debussy of his opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. At one moment I wrote that this sounds like Debussy influenced by Mahler. Often the music from Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica comes to ear. Towards the end of the movement there is a tread that brings to mind Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead. This might give you the idea that the music is eclectic to the point of losing any individuality, but that is not the case. All of these notions cross my mind as I listen, but mostly I think of the desolate beauty of The Magic Mountain.

Next comes a Prélude: Lake Geneva:

a portrait of Claire as she anticipates the arrival of Byron across Lake Geneva

This is some of the most sensually erotic music I have heard. A soupcon of oriental flavoring adds to the mystery. It is beautiful.

This is followed by Village Dance:

The monster of Frankenstein attempts to join the celebration of humankind. The monster's refusal by human society highlights his predicament as perpetual, misunderstood outsider

The music opens as an invitation. It segues to a Fêtes like celebration. At the same time the music has a Rite of Spring absurdity to it. The monster's dance is a grotesque parody. Chaos ensues.

The final movement is titled, Mary Shelly's Nightmare:

Mary is unable to sleep, haunted by a tormenting nightmare in which Frankenstein becomes associated with Shelly, an alliance which seems to give birth to the monster

Okay, at this point Debussy meets Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain. A Martinů-like chirping of night noises emerges. Berlioz demons come to the mind's ear. I actually wrote, "This is like some nightmare." The movement ends with three strokes and closure.

After listening to this I was emotionally drenched.

The next night, Sunday, I am listening to Viridian and making notes. The music is intense and I am scribbling. I am thinking about existential matters and the philosophic portent of all these synapses. Then Susan rushes into the room. "Bob, I hate to tell you this but Maya has a foot wart and you need to go to the pharmacy and get medicine…get some floss while you're at it, too." I am in the car, wondering if the pharmacy is still open, the music's impact still ringing in my ears. I realize that this is an operational definition of a Mahlerian experience. Just thought I'd share that.

Anyway, the insert notes, written by James Koehne and pretty good, indicates that in Viridian, "is the work in which Meale decisively turned his back on modernism." He also points out that in his note for the work, the composer quotes Debussy, "There is no theory: Pleasure is the Law." Be that as it may, Bartók is the composer who most came to mind as I listened to this three movement piece. It is the Bartók of the Quartets and composer of The Miraculous Mandarin I am talking about. At the end of the first movement, for some reason the opening of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" came to mind,

"Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;… ".

Richard Meale's Symphony #1 is, quite frankly, a mind blower. It may well be one of the most perfect symphonies ever written. I have heard Bruckner mentioned by another listener, and the piece does open with a brass chorus that does recall Bruckner. The composer who most often comes to my ear, however, is Sibelius. This may seem odd given the completely different climes from which these two composers hale. On the other hand, there is in Meale's Symphony the same kind of sense of nobility and strength in overcoming hardship that you hear in Sibelius' works. Also like Sibelius, Meale takes the music and has it develop in a kaleidoscope manner with the music strongly developed vertically as well as horizontally. It is like someone was writing a fugue upon a fugue. I realize that this attempt to describe what is happening in this symphony is perhaps baffling. On the other hand, there is so much happening here, so much that is beautiful and poignant, that I find myself at a loss to explain it. All I can say is that this piece of music has moved me deeply. I think you may share that experience.

Afterthoughts: I have listened to this symphony now several times. I continue to be impressed with each listening. One thing Meale does is run you through a series of events where he screws the screws tighter and tighter until you think to prolong it would destroy the mood, then he releases the tension in a kaleidoscope of rolling seas. Again, consistently the mood of Sibelius was what came to mind's ear.

Several listenings have strengthened my love for this symphony. This is the most absorbing and compelling piece of music I have heard in years, possibly ever. The last time I had a similar feeling was when I first listened to Sibelius' Second Symphony about 20 years ago. My background is in philosophy, and on two separate occasions, on different nights and different sheets of paper, I wrote, "This is the Meaning of Life.

Who is Richard Meale? The insert notes provide a fairly well detailed bio, so I'll simply summarize from it. He was born in 1932 in Sydney, Australia. He studied piano, clarinet, harp, history and theory at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music. In composition he is an autodidact. His earlier works were more in the Boulez type of modernism, but with Viridian (1979) he changed direction with more lyricism. He has won several awards and has achieved "international recognition". Well, I know that I look forward to hearing more.

Copyright © 1998, Robert Stumpf II

Trumpet