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19 December 2007

Recorder Gets A Workout

ACO and Genevieve Lacey // National // November 2007

Genevieve Lacey Image: Genevieve Lacey  

Do people still cling to the limited perception of the recorder as infantile and defunct? Or have they moved past its longstanding reputation as amplified ammunition for toddler tantrums or as a relic of chillout music for Henry VIII? Australia’s concertgoers have much to assure them of the instrument’s vitality in early music and contemporary composition alike. Many are familiar with the delicate clarity it adds to Baroque ensembles such as the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, while others may have witnessed its adventurous side in modern works performed, alongside Renaissance repertoire, by Sydney-based recorder quartet Bellatrix.

Then there’s Genevieve Lacey. Internationally renowned in her field, Lacey is active in extending her instrument’s repertory with commissions from several living composers in Australia – among them Brett Dean, Liza Lim and Andrew Ford – and abroad. Few other performers are so committed to championing new recorder works: Swedish virtuoso Dan Laurin is one who comes to mind who, like Lacey, has breathed life into the creations of Australian instrument maker Frederick Morgan.

As part of its nationwide Rapture tour, the Australian Chamber Orchestra explores, through collaboration with Lacey, the scope of the recorder’s versatility across genres and eras. Traversing the pristine, rapid solo passages of a Telemann concerto, ACO arrives at the more volatile sound worlds of newly commissioned works by Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür (b. 1959) and Perth-based James Ledger (b. 1966). The program concludes with a lush string orchestra arrangement (sans recorder) of Verdi’s String Quartet in E minor, perhaps an odd addition but not without musical antecedents to the sweeping romanticism found in Tüür’s offering.

Erkki-Sven Tüür often draws inspiration for his work from landscapes in which he perceives ‘the presence of both movement and stillness.’ Whistles and Whispers from Uluru (2007) combines the rich birdsong of the composer’s native surrounds (the Baltic Sea) with the hum of a starkly different environment: that of the Australian desert.

Tüür is not the first European composer to be taken with this country’s flora and fauna: Messiaen was famously entranced by lyrebird song during his excursion to the Brindabella Ranges in Canberra. Whistles and Whispers opens with similarly ecstatic, birdlike swoops and flourishes from the sopranino recorder, melting microtonally into a dialogue of crisp string pizzicato and shimmering chords described by the composer as ‘soundclouds’. Tüür’s atmospheric use of strings is not far removed from the glassy violin harmonics in the music of countryman Arvo Pärt, but, instead of eerie austerity, he achieves a charged, gestural drama. It is as if each sustained chord represents the composer’s view of the imposing rock formation from a new and humbling angle.

This sense of awe and discovery is echoed by forays into the recorder’s arsenal of extended techniques (eg. multiphonics, twin recorders). The piece moves gradually through the recorder family, reaching its climax on a large tenor played like a shakuhachi to evoke the dry desert wind. Finally, Lacey retreats symmetrically through various instrument sizes and tessituras to return to the original sopranino, as if Tüür had pressed the rewind button on evolution.

Like Whistles and Whispers from Uluru, the new work by James Ledger canvasses the entire spectrum of recorder types, completing the line-up with an unwieldy contrabass model – always something of a visual novelty. Rather than showcasing the instrument as a soloist, as in Ledger’s 2006 collaboration with Lacey (the concerto Line Drawing), Folk Song is cast in a more intimate trio setting, here with ACO luminaries Helena Rathbone on violin and Maxime Bibeau playing double bass.

Reflecting the unusual combination of instruments for which he was commissioned to write, Ledger channelled the anything-goes aesthetic and raw energy of Eastern European gypsy bands; the ghost of Bartók presides audibly over the four-minute piece. A gruff, percussive bass riff opens Folk Song with a double-stopped pattern interspersed with aggressive slaps of the strings. The recorder matches this rhythmic activity, blending its own filigree phrases with overblown notes, flutter-tonguing, tremolos and all manner of unconventional technique. The surprisingly gentle quality of its tenor and contrabass ranges is met with high string harmonics from the other players, enabling listening to be focused on those dark, breathy sounds.

Scrawling my notes for this review in the darkened Angel Place auditorium, I felt unsure of how to elucidate the Australian musical and thematic content of the two premiered works. After all, neither exhibits the environmental or cultural exemplars we have come to expect of a Peter Sculthorpe or Ross Edwards piece. In Whistles and Whispers from Uluru, Tüür blends imagery from Central Australia and his homeland to create a drifting landscape entirely his own.

Ledger’s Folk Song, on the other hand, seems consciously distanced from any semblance of a ‘typically Australian’ musical heritage, embracing an outlook that is emphatically European in its homage to Bartók. Just as the recorder has become a widely accepted presence in the concert hall, perhaps Australian composers, more than ever, see themselves as part of a world stage that engages in their cultural contribution without insisting on the token presence of a didjeridu.

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Melissa Lesnie currently studies musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where her main interests lie in early music and 20th century composition. She works at the classical CD specialist store Fish Fine Music. In her spare time, Melissa sings in the Sydneian Bach Chamber Choir and records as one half of an electroacoustic duo, Lady Lazarus.


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