Roger Smalley (b.1943) has travelled a not uncommon career path; modernist influenced by the complexities of early Maxwell Davies, electronics under the spell of Stockhausen and back to tonality since he settled in Australia. But the various composers who have seen the light and renounced youthful modernism are not to be bracketed together. Some avant gardists seem to have reverted and lost their individuality without finding a fruitful way forward (e.g. Penderecki); others have taken a defiant route to simplicities (Tavener, and the American Beth Anderson, who has espoused 'beauty' above all). A complex case, a disturbing one for me, is George Rochberg, with whom I am currently trying to come to terms.
Smalley quarries the great romantics, but remains a constructivist, who builds extended structures often from small fragments of familiar masterpieces. If you share my unease and doubts about this movement, try first Crepuscule, the piano quartet Variations on a Theme of Brahms upon his E minor Intermezzo Op. 116. This material (played here before Smalley's treatment of it) is so uniquely memorable, especially for people who may have played the piece on the piano, that the 15 variations, most of them under two minutes, are easy to follow as they ring the changes on instrumental textures, each one titled evocatively and track-listed separately. The Chopin Variations, performed with easy virtuosity by Douglas Finch, are based on the Mazurka Op. 24/4, and Smalley's Piano Trio upon a chromatic passage in another, Op. 59/2.
Poles Apart, for an ensemble of five which sometimes sound more, and requires a conductor, has its third movement based on a few bars from Chopin's Op. 50/3 Mazurka, which Douglas Finch gives us afterwards. The trio with clarinet evokes Brahms, building from a passage in his second clarinet sonata. members of the Continuum Ensemble give authorative performances in various combinations and will have had the benefit of working them up with the composer. A stimulating CD which can be enjoyed at various levels, and is a welcome opportunity to catch up with Roger Smalley and his composing response to living in the very different musical environment of Western Australia. Recommended to explorers willing to glance backwards whilst looking forward.
Copyright © 2004, Peter Grahame Woolf