★★★★☆ Virtuosic and versatile, an evening showing off the neglected riches of the recorder and the harp.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
October 9, 2015

Both the recorder and harp suffer from a bit of an image problem. The humble recorder conjures horrifying memories of painfully out of tune childhood music lessons, and the harp can often be dismissed as something of an instrumental bon-bon, relic of the Romantic repertoire, useful for adding the odd lovely glissando to an orchestral palette, but not much else. Yet in the right hands both these instruments are capable of extraordinary musical riches deserving of our attention, and with a well-judged, yet provocative programme, award-winning recorder player Alicia Crossley and American harpist Emily Ann Granger delivered a defiant demonstration, not just of impressive virtuosity, but of eye-opening versatility as well.

There is however one significant hurdle to overcome when putting together an evening of music for such an idiosyncratic combination: an unfortunate dearth of repertoire. Meeting this problem head-on Crossley and Granger have commissioned three excellent new works by Australian composers, whilst bolstering the rest of the programme with arrangements of existing works, with various degrees of success.

Opening their performance in familiar territory, an arrangement of a C.P.E. Bach’s Sonata in G minor; a savvy selection, allowing a gentle introduction to the sound world of the recorder and harp duo, played with effortless panache by Crossley and Granger.  Some of the other arrangements were truly revelatory in their transformation of well-worn favourites. Ann Boyd’s Goldfish Through Summer Rain was instantly evocative of the Asian culture this work borrows so much from, and Fauré’s Sicilienne beguiled with gentle rustic charm as if drifting in on a breeze across a field of wheat. Takemitsu’s Toward the Sea was a gamble too far sadly, with the bass recorder struggling to match the penetrative heft of the original Alto Flute incarnation.

Both featured instrumentalists enjoyed individual moments in the spotlight, firstly Granger performing Debussy’s Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane, followed by Crossley giving the Australian premiere of British composer Peter Hope’s Birthday Concerto. Joined by a small string ensemble, both soloists shone, however in the drab and unforgiving acoustic of the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room the accompanying ensemble left a few too many inconsistencies, in both tone and confidence, exposed.

Emily Ann Granger

However it was the three world premieres of the evening that were the real triumphs of this performance. First Andrew Batt-Rawden’s Shadows Cast by Fire offered a beautifully realised and poetic, almost existential reflection on the confounding complexity that can be found in purity. With an elegant flowing melody, the spooling lines of this music slowly begin to unlace before the transparent clarity of the counterpoint becomes misted with a fug of chromaticism. Batt-Rawden’s philosophical intentions are clear as the music nimbly traces his train of thought as he ponders this conundrum, but while this piece obviously intends to push the technical powers of both players it does not exchange musical logic or narrative thrust for flashy, virtuosic pyrotechnics. With graceful lyricism and restraint, this excellent addition to the repertoire shows-off and at the same time flatters both performers.

Mark Oliveiro’s Obake Sin (Paper Moon) makes a fascinating exploration of the ancient pasts of both these instruments, which date back millennia. Using a specially devised notation system drawing on arcane cuneiform proto-languages, this piece mingles historically distant musical artefacts with bleeding-edge experimentalism. The result is something brutal yet subtly sophisticated: an almost savage sound-world that occasionally devolves into a livid mass, bristling with the primitive energy of some timeworn ritual from an undiscovered culture. Music that pushes so unapologetically into the unknown such as this piece can suffer from an absence of empathy if the performers lack conviction, but both Granger and Crossley devote themselves totally to this performance, giving this music a magnetic authenticity.

Tristan Coelho’s Treetops/Rooftops aims to subvert the gentle stereotypes of both these instruments, using a range of preparations to distort the familiar sonorities of the harp and recorder into a more exotically percussive spectrum. Coelho’s expert control of colour and timbre yields a surprising scope of different tones, giving the music a patina of alien complexity, while using rhythmic simplicity and repetition to luxuriate in this bizarre, yet highly effective palette.

Granger and Crossley should of course be commended for their musical skill and technical prowess, after a concert of largely faultless, well-executed playing, but for constructing an evening of such bold, uncompromising, pioneering music they deserve a standing ovation. Trailblazers, while not always popular, should be fearless, and this was a performance that wasn’t just brave, but also brilliant.

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