PETER SCULTHORPE: “The Complete String Quartets with Didjeridu” = String Quartet No. 12 “From Ubirr”; String Quartet No. 14 “Quamby”; String Quartet No. 16; String Quartet No. 18 – Del Sol Quartet/ Stephen Kent, didjeridu – Sono Luminus (Pure Audio Blu-ray+2 CDs)

PETER SCULTHORPE: “The Complete String Quartets with Didjeridu” = String Quartet No. 12 “From Ubirr”; String Quartet No. 14 “Quamby”; String Quartet No. 16; String Quartet No. 18 – Del Sol Quartet/ Stephen Kent, didjeridu – Sono Luminus DSL-92181, 82:11 (Blu-ray Pure Audio + 2 CDs) [Distr. by Naxos] (9/30/14) ****:

I first heard the music of Peter Sculthorpe many years ago in some orchestral music with the Sydney Symphony. I immediately became interested in the music of a composer who I have since learned was one of Australia’s greatest composers and who passed away only a few months ago. It is natural, in my mind, to anticipate that this multi-talented composer would write music that reflects the stark topography, the exotic and unique cultural mélange and – in some ways – the troubled history of his native land.

In this amazing new release, The Del Sol String Quartet combines with didjeridu master Stephen Kent in Sculthorpe’s four string quartets that use this unusual but stunning combination. The results are very unique and attention-getting combining the raw, indigenous signature sound of the didjeridu with the very classical European sound of a string quartet. Part of Sculthorpe’s skill is to develop a sound that works amazingly well with such diverse combinations but also to create music that sounds at once traditional and “other worldly.”
Some of the background information on these works is intriguing and helps to explain their formation and resultant sounds. For example, the String Quartet No. 12 is based on the composer’s environmental symphonic work Earth Cry from 1986. The work has a strong ritualistic feel that, in places, sounds quite agitated but eventually comes to a melancholic closing with just the viola, cello, and didjeridu drone.

String Quartet No. 14 had been rewritten several times until finally reaching its present form with didjeridu in 2004. Each of its four movements evokes the sounds of valleys, hills, and the well-known Australian landmark, Quamby Bluff, the piece’s subtitle. The work is also based on a legend of that Tasmanian site where apparently a massacre of indigenous people by colonists took place. This very impressive work takes us through a range of emotions from peaceful to violent and, ultimately, the didjeridu closes the work restfully. Along the way, Sculthorpe quotes bits of an earlier work, My Country Childhood, as well as references the motive from Beethoven’s last string quartet (the “must it be?” motive.) This four-movement work was, for me, the most emotionally engaging of the set.

String Quartet No. 16 also carries a bit of a political message; apparently being written to draw attention to Australia’s quite restrictive immigration policy (in the news even as of late). The quartet exists in five movements and begins with “Loneliness”; a depiction of the desolate and primitive outback and is filled with the barking of the didjeridu. “Anger” is the title of the second movement and the string writing reflects this sentiment. “Yearning” is a slow elegiac movement that has hints of Afghani music in deference to the early traders who traversed the outback on camel and also in reference to present day Afghan detainees, seeking asylum. The fourth movement, “Trauma” and the concluding “Freedom” are Sculthorpe’s back-to-back responses to what he dislikes about his country’s current state of affairs as well as his hope for the future.

Sculthorpe wrote his String Quartet No. 18 at the age of eighty-one in 2010. This work carries a strong environmental message and includes an oscillating G and A flat, which the astronomer Johannes Kepler believed to be the “music of the spheres (planet earth).” This very serious work includes references to windmill development, ocean birds and even a Christian hymn to lay out a musical depiction and plea about the changing nature of the Australian wild. Sculthorpe was quoted as saying that a pedal low C (played here by didjeridu) “represents God, the God of all religious beliefs.”
The performances here are superb and this is one of the most fascinating albums I have heard in awhile. The Kronos Quartet first asked Sculthorpe about the idea of composing for string quartet and didgeridoo many years ago, but he would not take up this notion until years later. The Del Sol Quartet is based in San Francisco and didjeridu player Stephen Kent was music director for Circus Oz in Australia where he refined his expertise in didjeridu. I enjoyed both formats of this spectacular release but I do recommend the surround Blu-ray especially for its ability to pick up some subtleties in the didjeridu.

For those interested in the audio specifics, this set consists of two short CDs (the total time of all four quartets is just over 82 minutes), and a Blu-ray audio disc. The pieces were recorded at 24-bit, 192kHz in 7.1 surround sound, and the Blu-ray disc can be used to play all four works in 7.l, 5.1, or stereo PCM. It also contains mShuttle digital MP3 and FLAC files. I enjoyed these works and the great audio listening experience a lot! This is a composer whose music should be known and this release is both a terrific introduction as well as a testament to his talent and his beliefs.

—Daniel Coombs

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