A new generation’s Lilburn, from Atoll Records

DOUGLAS LILBURN – Violin and Piano Works

Elizabeth Holowell (violin)

Dean Sky-Lucas (piano)

Cameron Rhodes (speaker)

Atoll ACD 941

(….apologies for the length of this review! – PM)

If there’s ever a composer who seems to have been “rediscovered” by a fresh generation of performers, then Douglas Lilburn is the one, his music seeming to appeal as readily to today’s young players as it did to many of the composer’s similarly delighted and steadfast contemporary champions.

New recordings of many of Lilburn’s major works have appeared over the last few years, a couple of these projects containing substantial returns (Dan Poynton’s landmark survey of the composer’s piano music with Trust Records, for example). No less an important body of the composer’s work consisted of music for violin and piano, much of which recorded by the musicians for whom the works were written at the time. Now, thanks to a brilliant recently-released disc on the Atoll label featuring Australian violinist Elizabeth Holowell (currently living and working in Auckland) and her fellow-countryman, the multi-talented Dean Sky-Lucas displaying his skills as a pianist, a group of these works have been brought together on a single recording for the first time. With the help of New Zealand actor Cameron Rhodes, the musicians were able to perform Lilburn’s musical tribute to a number of New Zealand poets who were his contemporaries, Salutes to Seven Poets, in conjunction with readings of exerpts from those poems which provided the original inspiration for the composer.

Previous recordings of all of these works include violinist Ruth Pearl and pianist Margaret Nielsen’s recording for Kiwi Records of the 1950 Violin Sonata. Ruth Pearl was the work’s original dedicatee, along with pianist Frederick Page, with whom she performed the music for the first time. Unfortunately, this is but one of many landmark recordings of New Zealand music locked in the limbo that is Kiwi Pacific Records, at present, awaiting some kind of saviour – considering the unique heritage value of these historic sound-documents, I think they’re worthy of urgent attention at the highest level. The Douglas Lilburn recordings in this particular archive are but one of the many which desperately need reactivation.

Other recordings can be found among broadcast archives of this and other works, the 1950 Violin Sonata, well represented by partnerships such as Ronald Woodcock (violin) and John Wells (piano) in 1976, Peter Walls and Margaret Nielsen in 1982, David Nalden and Bryan Sayer in 1984, Tim Deighton, also with Margaret Nielsen in 1989, and Natalie Tantrum and Stephen de Pledge in 1992 (and there are probably others).  Salutes to Seven Poets has been well-championed by violinist Dean Major (see also the Waiteata Music Press listing below), broadcast performances featuring partnerships with Rae de Lisle (1989), and David Guerin (1990), while the earlier Violin Sonata in E-flat (1943) was recorded for radio by Dean Major and Rae de Lisle in 1985. Incidentally, the same artists recorded in the studio (the date isn’t listed) another of Lilburn’s Violin Sonatas, in C Major, which the composer completed in 1943 before he tackled his E-flat Sonata of the same year.

On Jack Body’s Waiteata Music Press Label (the disc’s catalogue number WTA 009), violinist Dean Major and pianist Rae de Lisle can be found performing Salutes to Seven Poets with a compelling generosity of spirit and feeling for atmosphere and colour. On this recording there are spoken commentaries by the composer, quoting but a few lines of each of the poems, as well as recording some brief impressions of the work and creative personality of each poet, unlike on the new Atoll recording, where reader Cameron Rhodes gives us part of the text of each poem.  Only some momentary less-than-ideally steady intonation in No.4, the Salute to M.K.Joseph, breaks the confidently-woven spell of Dean Major’s playing, while Rae de Lisle’s keyboard conjurings of feeling and imagery via rhythm and colour remain treasurable. The recording pronounces itself essential for the composer’s contribution alone, however more “complete” a performance concept the newer Atoll disc might present. The disc is available for a song from the Waiteata Music Press at the New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University, or from the Centre for New Zealand Music (SOUNZ), both in Wellington.

The new Atoll disc begins with Salutes, so that the first sounds we hear are the mellifluous tones of actor Cameron Rhodes’ voice. The business of marrying speech with music on record seems in most cases I’ve heard to be problematic, the stumbling-block invariably being a lack of commonality of ambience between what’s spoken and what’s played (a particularly alienating example of this was the recent NZSO Naxos disc of Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the melodrama actors’ voices really did sound as if they had been recorded in a completely different “space” to that of the orchestra). For me, it’s important when listening to something like this to feel (however illusory, in fact) a sense of unity, of spaces being shared and contact between impulses being made – and the Atoll recording, though registering a slightly warmer “background” for the musicians, makes the connections between speaker and players as satisfyingly as anything I’ve heard. These are powerful realizations, with Rhodes’ intense readings of the poetry followed by Elizabeth Holowell’s richly-committed string tones intermeshed with Dean Sky-Lucas’s fantastic keyboard work. It all makes rather more concentrated and focused a unity than the Waiteata Music Press performance, LIlburn’s own commentaries and wider-ranging interpolations wryly leavening the intensities of Dean Major’s and Rae de Lisle’s equally committed playing. A pity the booklet-notes writer for the Atoll CD slightly fudges poet A.R.D.Fairburn’s name by interpolating his more familiar “Rex” (one or the other format would have done) – but then to apply the same treatment to an unfamiliar-sounding “Ronald A.K.Mason” borders on the pedantic.

What’s important is that a sense of the composer’s involvement with poets he knew personally is captured by the performances, the result, of course, being a kind of synthesis of such impressions formed by Lilburn’s own personality – and Holowell and Sky-Lucas are both able to command an attractive “balladic” quality about their playing which speaks both of vivid recollection of treasured interaction, and a parallel sense of time having passed on. Listening to both performances alerts one to different intensities sought by the players – Dean Major and Rae de Lisle project a focus suggesting an all-consuming immediacy (listening to the opening of the Andante tribute to Keith Sinclair, following his Although you have floated the land, one can feel how those latent intensities are brought out – searingly by Major, in places, compared to Elizabeth Holowell’s richly-toned but more dispassionate view). Following Michael Joseph’s A shepherd on a bicycle, a delicious amalgam of the ordinary and the fabulous, Holowell and Sky-Lucas concentrate on pastoral beauty rather than rustic energies, the violin-playing more secure than Dean Major’s in places, though he and Rae de Lisle conjure up a stronger rhythmic sense of a mustering, the day-to-day business of the farmer. As for the Copland-esque tribute to James K.Baxter – Upon the upland road I find myself going between Holowell’s and Sky-Lucas’s more easy-going wayfarer, who takes things pretty much as they come, in true Kiwi fashion; and Major and de Lisle’s more impulsive wanderer, given to bouts of day-dreaming and spontaneous irruptions of energy.

Most characteristic of all in a compositional sense are the repeated-note patterns with which the piano begins the Allegro commode tribute to Kendrick Smithyman. Dean Sky-Lucas fashions a beautifully pulsating piano trajectory along which the haunting repetitions flow, and over which Elizabeth Holowell’s violin can soar, sometimes spectacularly, as with her confidently-addressed octave ascent, giving rise to thoughts of other poetry – “…as a skeet’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding rebuffed the big wind….” – the way Holowell’s line sweeps and soars at that point would do justice to the greatest verses. At first, I didn’t like Cameron Rhodes’ somewhat jerky, limp-rhythmic delivery of R.A.K. Mason’s Song of Allegiance, preferring in my mind’s ear an ironic vain-glorious display of goose-stepping bravado, with imaginary drums flailing as if in mockery of the poet’s presumption. But subsequent hearings have suggested other kinds of ironies, more slowly, but surely appreciated, and the musical tribute’s evocation of a kind of “man alone” aspect, suggests artistic fortitude and stoic control, and allowing only towards the end of the piece a brief display of furrowed-brow emotion.

Holowell and Sky-Lucas plot this course unerringly, again, managing to suggest whole worlds more of words and ideas, were tongues to be allowed to utter thoughts. Those who knew the struggles Lilburn experienced as a composer in a land largely unresponsive to such efforts would have recognized, in the ritualized lament of the music, the voice of one crying in the wilderness (“…toil I on, with bloody knees…”), dignity giving way only briefly to anger and despair at the very end. Dean Major and Rae de Lisle are more direct, harsher and sharper, but in a way that ironically gives the almost Mahlerian concluding cry of anguish somewhat less impact upon the whole, despite its agglomerated weight of utterance.

The final, overall “Salute” to all of the poets has a different spoken prelude in each performance. On the Waiteata disc, the composer acknowledges in a few words the overall contribution of all seven poets to his creative inspiration; while the new Atoll features Cameron Rhodes’ reading of Allen Curnow’s poem To Douglas Lilburn at Fifty. Each is perfectly in accord with its own overall performance ethos, Curnow’s poem laconically exploring the implications of a milestone in the life of a creative artist, which the music then succinctly parallels with out-of-doors tones so dear to the composer’s heart. Holowell and Sky-Lucas are lighter-footed, even airborne in places, the violin-playing a touch more elegant, somewhat less laden than Major’s “wrung” notes, though he and de Lisle, true to their overall interpretative focus, project an intensely visionary quality whose resonances aren’t easily forgotten. We listeners are enriched in having both performances to experience and enjoy.

The other works on the Atoll disc have no commercially available alternative versions, though many people will remember Ruth Pearl’s recording with Margaret Nielsen of the 1950 Violin Sonata on a Kiwi LP (SLD-32), the disc still kicking around second-hand shops, awaiting adventurous explorings by enthusiasts.  This still sounds well, the violin and piano images a bit more left-and-right than on the newer recording, but with the instrumental timbres nicely intact. Ruth Pearl was a powerful player, and her lyrical lines soar with plenty of heft, deftly supported by Margaret Nielsen’s warm, flexible piano sound – a lighter touch than Dean Sky-Lucas’, but capable of summoning up reserves of tone when needed. Pearl and Nielsen are more quixotic and volatile throughout the allegro, occasionally tightening the pace and creating whirls of energized excitement. Margaret Nielsen’s chords at the beginning of the largamente episode are glittering stalagtites of suspended sound, the mood dramatic,and the detailing ruggedly etched. There’s no release of tension with the allegro, which drives forward irresistibly in Pearl’s and Nielsen’s hands, the focus firmly fixed, the goal unequivocal, Pearl’s violin occasionally under a bit of strain, but realizing the drama and intensity of it all. Her and Nielsen make something almost sacramental out of the lyricism of the last couple of pages.

On Atoll, Dean Sky-Lucas’s opening unfurls a spacious ambience, one into which Elizabeth Holowell’s violin projects a rhapsodic and varied line, the players beautifully etching in the colour and texture changes as the music enlarges its picture. Bucolic energies bubble forth with an allegro whose inventiveness leads the ear on through a rhythmic and thematic garden of open-air delights, the playing delightfully alfresco in both its energy and its resonance – a beautiful sound. The largamente section that follows is notable for Holowell’s eloquently-realised line (so many felicitous detailings) shining like a sea-bird’s wings over the top of a deeply-hued oceanic blue-green, the line dipping and soaring, spreading widely and closing up into a fine thread, moving now towards, now with, now away from its surrounding ambient body. When the allegro returns violin and piano play a game of hide-and seek in different guises, an attractive, genial folkish element energizing the themes before sinking into a realm of repose and reflection, the piano’s hymn-like foundation drawing elegant flourishes of an almost ritualistic kind from the violin, the instruments forging a sound-discourse of nostalgia-tinted instinctive wisdom. I played both versions all again, immediately I’d finished first time through, and was moved as profoundly each time, as much by the emotional surety of the argument as its beauty and variety.

And for the rest, Holowell and Sky-Lucas have the field to themselves, at least for the moment. The biggest surprise is the Othello incidental music, accompanied by a few exerpts from the play, read with great verve and emotional variety by Cameron Rhodes. The violin-and-piano combination works well as a “dramatic” vehicle, the violin having enough bright resonance to convey fanfare-like ceremony, and the piano limitless resources of colour and ambient warmth. After Cameron Rhodes’ savagely sardonic exposition of Iago’s plans to bring about Othello’s downfall, the somewhat chiruppy Allegro risoluto seems an inappropriate response, but all is made good by the melancholy beauty of the playing of Lilburn’s remarkable Willow Song. Distinctive in a different way is the following Interlude, emotionally ambivalent and unsettled, its ruffled poise mirroring the turmoil of the tragedy about to be enacted. Rhodes puts his everything into Othello’s final speech – “….of one that loved not wisely but too well….”, a fraught moment which the Finale (andante) distils in gravely circumspect tones. Rarely do repetitions of theatrical lines wear as well as does music, however expertly delivered – and the separate tracks on the CD enable the listener to enjoy the music alone for its own sake.

Finally, another big, richly satisfying listen – Lilburn’s Sonata in E-flat for violin and piano, dating from 1943. Does the key bring out the best in composers, I wonder? – it’s certainly a sound that gets the blood flowing, as is the case here, with a juicily-voiced opening violin statement supported by rich piano undulations, the mood both heroic and rhapsodic. On first hearing I was swooping and soaring with Elizabeth Holowell’s violin in a kind of ecstasy, and therefore disappointed to hear the instrument break off its discursive flight (none too elegantly, at 2’07” – as though Orpheus had momentarily dropped his lyre…), considering the rest of the movement’s wonderfully-spun lyrical flow. But what worlds the composer subsequently takes us to – Holowell may have played the hushed stratospheric figurations leading up to the luftpause at 5’54” with more purity of tone on other occasions, but surely never with quite such “innigkeit” as here. Lilburn’s characteristic “modal” harmonies time and again disarm our sense of place, the air about us bringing, by turns Debussy-like fragrances, then surges of earthier impulse, the musicians’ generous outpourings enabling we listeners to share a richly-detailed emotional journey. Throughout this movement I had the sense of sharing the sound-world of a young composer with a great deal of both accumulated and on-going thought and emotion to let out to the world.

We exchange warmth for cool melancholy at the slow movement’s beginning, though there’s warmth welling up from the instruments’ lower reaches as the music proceeds. Holowell brings out the folksiness in places in the writing, her fiddle double-stopping and droning with flavorsome focus, then expanding and soaring over Dean Sky-Lucas’s resonantly grumbling and tintinabulating keyboard voices. The folk-lament flavour carries the music to the finale’s beginning, a call to action from the piano, Sky-Lucas’s sparking finger-work gathering up Holowell’s responsive tones in a dancing web of interactive strands (the same dancing delight Lilburn was to give to the finale of his first Symphony a half-dozen years later). But Lilburn widens the music’s scope as he proceeds, revisiting the first movement’s rhapsodic gesturings with enviable exploratory flair, string harmonics vying in places with explosive piano irruptions, the young composer revelling all the while in his kaleidoscopic shifts of harmony, the energies and impulses of the playing gathering up and carrying one’s sensibilities along quite irresistibly to the pay-off – an exhilarating listening experience.

I enjoyed such a great deal about this disc, from the quirky attractiveness of the frontispiece illustration (a painting, The Four Kings, by Auckland artist Chuck Joseph) to the wholeheartedness of actor Cameron Rhodes’ evocations of both the various New Zealand poems and the Shakespeare Othello exerpts – but my overriding feeling is gratitude to Atoll Records for capturing in true-to-life, state-of-the-art sound such an inspired partnership between two wonderful musicians, enabling a number of important works by New Zealand’s greatest composer to be heard to their inestimable advantage.

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