Carl Vine: Complete Symphonies (2CD)

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Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart

Born in Perth in 1954, Carl Vine is one of Australia's most prolific and versatile composers. Carl Vine’s six symphonies trace concisely the evolution that brought him back to the original symphonic tradition that modernity temporarily curtailed.

Carl Vine's metaphor for his own symphonic practice is drawn from the natural sciences: composition begins with a ‘crystal’, a musical idea whose characteristic angles and planes are explored and transformed in the course of the work’s creation. This process of transformation, of presenting material in varying lights, coupled with the composer’s sense of timing, makes for a series of works whose inherent drama is considerable.

These recordings feature the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under the batons of Edo de Waart and the late Stuart Challender, with the assistance of Synergy percussion ensemble ("Percussion Symphony") and the Sydney Philharmonia Choir ("Choral Symphony").

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CD 1
1. Symphony No. 1 'MicroSymphony' (1986)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Stuart Challender

2. Symphony No. 2 (1988)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Stuart Challender

3. Symphony No. 3 (1990)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Stuart Challender

4. Celebrare Celeberrime (1993)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart

CD 2
1. Symphony No. 4.2 (1993, revised 1998)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart

Symphony No. 5 'Percussion' (1995)
2. Part I

3. Part II (Tarantella)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Synergy, Edo de Waart

Symphony No. 6 'Choral' (1996)
4. Introduction
5. I Enuma Elish (When on High)
6. II Eis Gen Metera Panton (To the Earth, Mother of All)
7. III Eis Selenen (To the Moon)
8. IV Eis Helion (To the Sun)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia Motet Choir, Edo de Waart

Recorded at Sydney Town Hall, May, July, September 1990 (Symphonies Nos. 1-3), July 1996 (Symphony No. 5 ‘Percussion’), 17-21 March 1997 (Celebrare Celeberrime), 17-19 March 1998 (Symphony No. 4.2, Choral Symphony) in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House.

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A world-class Australian symphonist means this reissue is a must.



When this double CD set was  first issued in 2005, the Australian composer Carl Vine had written six symphonies. He has now composed a seventh, along with other major works. We await their recording: hopefully there will be increased activity when Vine turns 65 in 2019.

Meanwhile, this set contains some of the most brilliant, most evocative music for orchestra written in this country. That these symphonies have not been revisited repeatedly to form a permanent part of the Australian concert repertoire points up the lack of imagination in our programming. Vine's gripping Symphony No. 4.2 (as it is called, an expansion of his Symphony No. 4 originally written for the Sydney Youth Orchestra) would make a welcome change from yet another Tchaikovsky "Pathetique".

Vine's first three symphonies are in a post-Romantic idiom, harmonically and in terms of orchestral texture. They come from the mid-late 1980s. Stuart Challender recorded them in 1990; a champion of the composer, he passed away prematurely at the end of 1991. Edo de Waart, during his tenure with the SSO, recorded Symphonies No. 4.2, No. 5, "Percussion" (which features the ensemble Synergy), and No. 6, "Choral". The later works take on a stronger rhythmic profile, particularly No. 5 (understandably). Vine's "Choral" Symphony does not emulate Beethoven's triumphalism, but contains much soft, atmospheric music - especially in the third movement, titled "To the Moon". The sound quality is first class; even the earlier of the two discs packs a punch.

Every music-lover should hear this important reissue.

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Booklet Notes:

That symphonism fell into disregard in the middle of the 20th century is not altogether surprising: the 19th-century aesthetic of self expression and the musical processes used to that end were no doubt felt to belong to a world unimaginable after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. That there is a resurgence of symphonism now, however, does not necessarily mean a simple-minded return to outdated values and practices. There are certain constants which serve to define the symphonic (observable in Mozart, Mahler or Carl Vine) and it is ultimately on the composer’s deployment of musical forces
and construction of a musical argument that a work’s propriety may be judged.

Carl Vine’s six symphonies trace concisely this evolution, which brought him back to the original symphonic tradition that modernity temporarily curtailed. He worked in the atonal idiom of modernity until he found it expressively inadequate. The following statement, characteristically frank and revealing, was made by Vine in 1992: ‘A great deal of my compositional time has been spent rejecting a background in the pure mathematics of music … Viewing composition as a communication at the deepest level, my intention is to commit no mark to paper or waveform to recording tape in which I did not fervently believe. Without being overly Romantic, I am committed to conveying as much of myself as possible in my music … The “message” is nonverbal, non-specific and non-programmatic, but constitutes that part of my mind that is worth conveying to others.’

Carl Vine’s metaphor for his own symphonic practice is – as we might expect from one who, but for the grace of God, might have become a physicist – drawn from the natural sciences: composition begins with a ‘crystal’, a musical idea whose characteristic angles and planes are explored and transformed in the course of the work’s creation. This process of transformation, of presenting material in varying lights, coupled with the composer’s sense of timing, makes for a series of works whose inherent drama is considerable.

Born in Perth in 1954, Vine is one of Australia’s most prolific and versatile composers, having written, in addition to music for concert performance, works for theatre, film and dance. Many of his early pieces were for electronic forces, which may have some bearing on the subtle ear for blend and balance of orchestral sound demonstrated by these later works. He was, furthermore, a founding member of the now legendary ensemble Flederman, which premiered some 70 new Australian works as well as introducing much music from overseas.

When the composer accepted the Sydney Youth Orchestra’s commission in 1986, he set out to write a work which was symphonic in intent and instrumentation, but which avoided any suggestion of late or neo-Romantic selfindulgence. The piece, therefore, was restricted in duration to the 111/2 minutes suggested in the score, and given the title of MicroSymphony. It was first performed by the Sydney Youth Orchestra under Stuart Challender.

Short though it is, this exuberant piece has an extremely taut structure, wasting no time in expounding and developing its musical argument. The opening gesture, for instance, serves to establish ‘A’ as the tonal focus of the piece and while the metre is a simple four in the bar, the syncopations of the opening immediately throw us into a world of high rhythmic tension. The work’s ‘crystal’ is heard in the quiet passage which follows: a simple statement of two chords, one with a major third; the other with a minor third; and separated by the ambiguous interval of a tritone. From this unassuming material is generated most of the work’s pitch content, both melodic and harmonic, and it is given its vitality by extension of the rhythmic energy already heard.

Though in one movement, MicroSymphony contains clearly defined sections, each with its own character. The insistent quavers at first, for example, are treated in a way that suggests Stravinsky more than Philip Glass, and give way to a lyrical passage for flutes and oboes, whose close imitation and unhurried 12/8 metre (where the pulse is subdivided into three rather than
two) suggest a pastoral calm. Notice, however, that true to the symphonic principle of conflict, the two rhythmic figures already encountered soon begin to fight for supremacy, and the first quavers seem to win.

The central section of the piece is a slower, more rhapsodic episode dominated by an ostinato figure from the piano, against which short solos for woodwinds, derived from the pitches of those two chords at the beginning, are spun out. A solo glockenspiel announces the final section, where overlapping wind statements of the little pastoral theme, now presented in semiquavers, mark a return to the world of fast, muscular rhythm where that rhythmic conflict between beats divided into two and those into three plays itself out. That having been done, the work ends as economically as it began, with a short slow coda of unequivocal but ethereal statement of the piece’s central A major.

In his second and third symphonies, Vine takes a more expansive view of his material. However, as in the MicroSymphony, each work is a single movement made up of contrasting sections. His Symphony No. 2 was commissioned by the ABC and the Australian Bicentennial Authority and was premiered by Hiroyuki Iwaki and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in April 1988.

This work falls into five sections, beginning, like its predecessor, with a passage of great rhythmic momentum. Restless ostinatos, in the lower strings and woodwinds, seem to try to break free from the spell of D which is the central tonal focus of the work. A characteristic theme soon appears high above this texture – in long notes, it is simple and diatonic, luminously scored for high strings doubled by piccolo. The pitches used here are crucial to the work’s development, particularly the G and B-flat that we hear often. Other instruments take up these floating phrases, travelling in pairs: flute doubles muted trumpet; piccolo subtly brightens the solo horn; while tension builds with the progressive addition of overlapping ostinatos throughout the orchestra.

This tension is released with the arrival of a new ‘paragraph’, again characteristic of Vine’s style: an ostinato for harp (in 12/8, like the new material in MicroSymphony), now centring on C-sharp, stabilises the continuing scurrying motives from the opening; while the oboe announces a new, simple, stepwise melody. Again, the section explores the potential tension, albeit genially, between groupings of two and three, and comes to a moment of repose in E major before the violent outburst of the second section. At this point we hear one of the rare appearances of automobile brake drums in symphonic music. The arresting chords give way to a passage built on rising scalar figures, which eventually leads to another passage where a harp ostinato (this time supporting tones  related to those heard above the opening texture) inaugurates another gathering of tension before a return to the chords that open the section.

The third section contains a greater diversity of material, with numerous short motives flying about in a transparent orchestral texture. The fourth section corresponds to a traditional slow movement, where various instruments are given extensive lyrical solos (beginning, for instance, with the cello). A short bridge passage, where the cor anglais recalls the opening melody, leads into an extraordinary lush flowering of the texture. Here is the crystal of the work, and in a sense its climax; because it is here that the work recapitulates much of its earlier material in a concentrated form that focuses our perception of the relationships between the seemingly disparate rhythmic passages.

Having made these connections, the piece ends in a short, fast coda, based on new material. An interest in relating sections of differing metre, or speed, is a hallmark of Vine’s music, and often
one will find that the transition from one section to another has been done almost imperceptibly by a device known as rhythmic modulation, where the rate of the basic pulse of a section is related proportionally to that of the next, allowing for a seamless transition. Stylistically, this balances another frequent gesture found in the symphonies, as at the beginning of the fourth section, where the texture will build up and suddenly stop, leaving one voice hanging in mid-space.

Symphony No. 3 was the prestigious John Bishop Commission for 1990, and received its first performance at the Adelaide Festival in that year with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Stuart Challender. Again in one movement, the symphony’s central idea is a kind of Beethovenian movement from a world of dark, unstable textures to one of triumph as represented by the work’s  unequivocal A-flat major, and the music’s progress from section to section and concurrent modulations of mood are even more seamless.

The symphony opens with a brooding texture, where chromatic figures in the bass turn in on themselves with an air of suppressed passion. A rhythmic modulation carries us to another one of those innocent worlds where, again in 12/8, the harp supports diatonically untroubled solos for woodwinds. Again, however, there is a gradual building of tension as more and more instruments push towards duple, rather than triple figures. A climax is reached by a process of accretion, notable for the haunting sound of fanfare-like figures in the trumpets, but this is interrupted by the return of the  harp/woodwind music.

A solo for maracas announces what might correspond to the sonata-allegro movement of a Classical symphony, where tension is immediately built by the insistent regularity of the maracas’ beat (in groups of five working against the prevailing duple pulse) contrasting with the distinctive rhythmic character of the other instruments’ motives. The gradual interlocking of these motives eventually produces a marvellously rich texture.

That characteristic sudden silence leaves a trio of flutes holding an F-sharp minor triad, which heralds a slow movement, again characterised by an abundant variety of lyrical solos for strings and winds. Especially notable is a long florid solo for clarinet which leads to a final fast section.

Disembodied scurrying motives give way to driving semiquavers, at first in the second violins and violas but ultimately joined by the rest of the orchestra. It is not this driving texture which brings the work to a climax or a close, however, but the sudden modulation into a slower tempo where the inexorable-sounding alternations of E and its dominant B in the basses are gradually overlaid with a lush tapestry of woodwind and tuned percussion. Using a procedure well-known to Beethoven and Schubert, and yet sounding in no way arch or arbitrary, the work reaches its apotheosis when the tonality suddenly changes to A-flat – a third away from that established. The effect is like a sudden blaze of light.

Although Vine’s symphonies frequently employ harmonies from the Classical tonal vocabulary, they are not ‘tonal structures’ in the classical sense, where every detail affirms the basic predominance of a single tonality. Even the final pages of Vine’s Symphony No 4.2, based around an A major sonority, are not actually in A major in the classical sense. There is a variety of pedantic theoretical reasons (no real perfect cadence, the use of the Lydian mode, frequent added-note chords). More important for the listener is the free-floating nature of the harmonies – A major simply drifts into place, rather than being hammered home. (A colleague of Vine’s was once waspishly reviewed as ‘giving A major a bad name’; even that critic would have some trouble dismissing Vine’s eloquent argument for the contrary.)

Thus the contrasts on which Vine bases his symphonic forms do not revolve around such concepts as ‘a second subject in the dominant key’. Rather, the materials Vine characteristically sets in opposition are textures and rhythmic profiles. From the very beginning of Symphony No 4.2, these are readily apparent: the opening dissonant texture, even in pianissimo, already establishes a rhythmic tension between the upper and lower strings (with the upper group playing two notes to every three of the lower). These contrasts are abruptly widened with the addition of other sections of the orchestra. The piano enters, playing in a 5:3 proportion to the main tempo, before all this is in turn contrasted with a violent outburst from the full orchestra.

A series of episodes follow, exploring a variety of contrasts between rhythmic and more overtly lyrical styles of writing. A melody presented in octaves by the violins, although short-lived at first, is prophetic – introducing the texture which will, in its final progression to the top of the violin’s register, end the symphony. There is a comparatively self-contained section approximating the traditional symphonic scherzo, built around a repeated-note figure in the upper strings. The symphony, like MicroSymphony, was commissioned by the Sydney Youth Orchestra – but there is no hint of condescension to the players, who are offered a fully professional range of challenges. In fact, Vine’s orchestration is revealed here at perhaps its most inventive. A wide range of textures, from percussion-dominated rhythmic tutti sections to lush string harmonies, is most effectively deployed – alongside many strikingly individual touches, from the sparse passage for solo piano which follows the collapse of the scherzo section to the final stratospheric ascent of the violins.

Symphony No. 4.2 was originally composed in 1993 (as Symphony No. 4) for the Sydney Youth Orchestra, and revised in 1998, when it acquired its present title. As in the two symphonies which preceded it (and particularly its immediate predecessor), there is a clear progression from ‘darkness’ to ‘light’ across the entire work. Unlike in those two works, however, the final resolution is not powerfully affirmed by the entire orchestra – instead, the final A major goal here emerges quietly and unobtrusively across the work’s last few pages. The resolution is perhaps all the more effective for being so entirely serene, and crowns what may well be Vine’s most compelling symphonic structure to date.

In the program note for the world premiere of the ‘Percussion’ Symphony in March 1995, Vine’s friend and fellow composer Gordon Kerry wrote, ‘The notion of a fifth symphony has a certain cachet, thanks to composers like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler, for each of whom the number represents a work of particular importance.’ These composers form a Romantic symphonic tradition against which today’s composers must decide how to react; Kerry’s cachet applies to Carl Vine only because Vine is a modern composer who chooses to continue, rather than sever, the tradition.

From his first, MicroSymphony (1986), to his Third Symphony (1991) there is a clear progression towards a more consonant style, one that uses lyrical melodies and functional harmony. But between the Third and Fourth Symphonies is a major though little-known work that represents ‘the culmination of that trend towards harmony’. This was Vine’s 1991 ballet The Tempest. Though it took a year and a half to compose, the ballet only ran for a few weeks and only in Queensland; hence, one of the watersheds in Vine’s career is unfortunately also one of his most unfamiliar scores. The Tempest
was so much an arrival and culmination that subsequent works immediately had to move away from triadic harmony. These works, like the Fourth Symphony, are not as immediately accessible. After the Fourth Symphony, pieces like the Third String Quartet, GAIJIN, The Battlers and later the Fifth and Sixth (Choral) Symphonies once again hark towards a simpler language; towards ‘affirmation’, as Vine puts it – using triadic harmony’s more immediately communicative vocabulary to affirm the listener’s sensibilities and expectations.

The ‘Percussion’ Symphony No. 5 is a single movement work whose three sections are motivically linked by two elements: the work’s structural interval (a minor seventh) and a trochaic appoggiatura that Kerry’s analysis calls a ‘Mahlerian cri du coeur’. These two elements are prominent in the sparse and soft introductory passage that precedes that first section. The section proper, launched dramatically by the solo percussionists, is a sequence of extended and contrasting ‘moments’, each with its distinct key, armoury of percussion, and rhythmic ideas. Only at the section’s end does the brooding sound of the opening return, almost as a preparation for the next, hushed section. The second section is an adagio that contains the work’s first sustained instances of lyricism; the pitched percussion (marimba and vibraphone) and the woodwinds play, sometimes solo and sometimes in ensemble, melodic passages that become more ornate as they develop. Structurally, the section is in A–B–A form, yet following the second A are elements recalling the ‘moment’ form of the first section: there are passages for brass and for indefinitely pitched percussion before the  orchestra diffuses, leaving behind a mournful horn melody that gently closes the movement.

The third section begins bluntly with the unmistakable 12/8 metre of a tarantella – a mad, morbid dance that pits obsessive accompaniment figures against jagged melodic lines and declamatory outbursts from both percussion soloists and orchestra. The structure is quite novel: following the expository passages, there are two waves of accelerandos – passages in which the music speeds up gradually but insistently towards a climax. The two waves create two climaxes for this finale, producing a surprising twist to the ‘narrative’ of the work. This is an idea that continues into the next symphony of Vine’s; the final movement of the Choral Symphony, ‘Eis Hêlion’, also advances faster and faster to a grandiose but interrupted climax.

Many choral symphonies stem from the wish to make a grand public statement; the impetus for Carl Vine to include a choir and organ in his Choral Symphony (Symphony No. 6), however, came from something rather closer to home. The work was commissioned by Guildford Grammar School in Perth, in honour of its centenary, and first performed in 1996; Vine himself had attended the school, performing there regularly both as an organist and as a chorister. Vine’s work differs in another respect from most choral works: generally, a choral composer tries to put a text across in a manner
intelligible to the listener (whatever eventually results from the realities of performance!). Here, however, Vine has gone in specific search of texts which will be on a verbal level incomprehensible to virtually any listener: the texts here are in Semitic Akkadian and Ancient Greek, languages forming a part of very few listeners’ active linguistic armoury.

Of course, the literal meaning of the words is only one of their aspects which a musical work can convey – and to many composers through all periods of music, from the earliest polyphony,
through bel canto coloratura, to post-modernism and the avant-garde, it has been one of the least important. Of far more importance to the composer’s work is the potential of a text to supply something to be communicated through the music. From our perspective, ancient languages appear much closer than our own speech to primal utterance, and to the creation of order from chaos – a potent image in music, not least in Vine’s own symphonies, many of which move from a chaotic beginning to an emphatically ordered resolution. Indeed, music and language have a shared origin in the imposition of order upon the chaotic potential of raw sound – in both cases, for the purposes of some sort of communication.

Vine alludes directly to this in his choice of an Akkadian text (‘Enuma Elish’) describing the creation of the world from primeval chaos. The texts which follow are Greek hymns to the Earth, Moon and Sun, thus combining to form ‘a simple pantheon of the human condition: an account of creation followed by our relationship to the prime deities of the cosmos’. After the opening dissonant fanfare, the work emerges out of the depths of the orchestra, with chanting in the basses’ lowest register: the vocal writing is homophonic throughout, reflecting Vine’s wish for his work to ‘revel in the power of human community’. Textures are varied in the preludes to each section. The prelude to the second section, for example, is a typical Vine scherzo of different rhythmic groupings contrasted over a
single ostinato, contrasting in turn with the chant-like textures which characterise the writing for the choir. Although the text on a word-byword level is not intended for explicit communication, Vine does employ some simple word painting. Besides the initial ascent from the depths, the chorus is occasionally divided as the text suggests – for example, allotting the words ‘I will sing of well-founded Earth, mother of all’ are given to the female voices. In the final section, the words devoted to Helion’s chariot have doubtless also suggested the character of the musical setting.

‘To celebrate to the full and with greatest speed’ is the translation of Carl Vine’s exhilarating espresso of a piece Celebrare Celeberrime, which concludes the first CD in this set. On his first Australian tour in 1991, the American conductor Isaiah Jackson conducted Vine’s Third Symphony, and was so taken with the piece – ‘Carl must have seen a lot of sunsets,’ Jackson said at the time – that he commissioned him to write this short concert opener for the 60th anniversary of Ohio’s Dayton Philharmonic, where Jackson was Chief Conductor. Vine has said that it expresses a ‘general philosophy of living one’s life to the fullest’. Its sense of headlong excitement has made it a great favourite at the annual Symphony under the Stars concert in the Sydney Domain.

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