Full Review for "Taking Flight" by Harrison


This disc featuring a selection of chamber works for string quartet, violin and piano, solo piano and soprano, flute and string trio is the first recording devoted exclusively to music by this composer, and it shows her to have a compelling, distinctive, and passionate compositional voice.

The most impressive work on the disc is Taking Flight, written for the Kreutzer Quartet in 1999. This substantial work is characterised by delicate but unsettling sustained passages, punctuated by anguished dramatic gestures. The composer describes her intention in the quartet as being to 'open doors on the past', and many of the thematic and harmonic fragments manipulated in the piece are taken from either her own earlier music, or from works by Birtwistle, Debussy, Gerhard and Bartok. This is a work which I would strongly recommend to string quartets looking for contemporary repertoire that has direct emotional power. Other works featured on the disc include Traceries and Arcosolia for violin and piano. Traceries was written in 1997 for the thirtieth birthday of Peter Sheppard Skaerved, the first violin of the Kreutzer Quartet and violinist on this recording. As with the string quartet, Traceries also acknowledges the influence of previous composers, in this case Stravinsky and Bach. Arcosolia, written in 1999 was dedicated to the composer's grandmother, who had died that year. An arcosolia is the burial chamber within a mediaeval church, and the main thematic material is based on the notes A, C, G (sol in the solfege system), and A, taken from the letters of the title. Impressa Amorosa, a collection of short pieces for solo piano, performed by Aaron Shorr, again explores the contrast between quiet, static sections, and dramatic activity. The disc concludes with Aster for soprano, flute and string trio. The work was written in 1995, and sets six texts from an anthology of ancient Greek poems. Soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers gives an impressive performance, particularly in the subtle shading and colouring of her line.

The performances on this disc are generally very good, and the recorded sound excellent. Metier have a strong track record for producing recordings of young and little known contemporary composers, and deserve every support for continuing this important work. A highly recommendable recording.


A feature of Harrison 's style: she seems to like beginning as if the music is wafting in from far away, then she becomes more emphatic and complex only to have it all fade or evaporate.

Learn something new every day. It's a reasonable motto and it should keep the intellect alive. And if I'm tempted to think that I know - or know of - every significant Australian composer of concert music... well, openness to learning can shatter that illusion, too. That happened when I read the August 2001 issue of Gramophone. "Sadie Harrison (Australian-born and working in England) is in her mid-thirties," the review began. Who? Clearly, I had to get this CD and hear it: not simply to discover a new composer - vitalising though that is - but especially because that English reviewer made it sound so interesting. I was not disappointed. The biographical details are interesting. Born in Adelaide, Harrison studied at the University of Surrey, then pursued a doctorate, under Nicola Lefanu at King's College, University of London, and now lectures in music at Goldsmiths College (London). She is published by the University of York Music Press and this CD is to be followed soon by a second, which promises to include After Colonna, Three Expositions and the quin- tet, No Title Required. That last title is interesting because on the CD to hand all of the titles seem so important - at least to the composer - as triggers for the pieces, their genesis, textures and sometimes their texts as well. The work which gives the CD its collective title, Taking Flight (1999), is a string quartet and it is splendidly played by the Kreutzer Quartet, its dedicatees. It has a clear, close recording which - like every other track - makes the listener immediately involved in the performance; this sense remains as the music unfolds: it is often intense but never dense, it is as if the light and air enter easily. The composer's note lists her influences in this piece - Birtwistle, Debussy, Gerhard and Bartok, all of which may be true though in music (as in cinema) one can become excessively referential - but, having read that, I simply ignored it and listened to the music. There are many soloistic flourishes in the score but what sustained my attention was Harrison's adroit contrasting, throughout the piece, of the forthright, rhythmic feature with which she began against moments of real stillness, as well as her capacity to achieve contrast at any given moment - a very high violin note, for example, soft and sustained, against a low ppp cello. Traceries - that title refers to a Gothic window in Whitby Abbey - is a delicate work for violin and piano which she wrote in 1997 for the thirtieth birthday of the violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved. It is gentle and delicate and he plays it here with real love - clearly, it was a valued present. It is based on a harmonic series, dreamy but deliberate. Listening to it I began to hear a feature of Harrison's style: she seems to like beginning as if the music is wafting in from far away, then she becomes more emphatic and complex only to have it all fade or evaporate. This could become a mannerism but when the pieces are heard as individuals, it reveals a sense of the significance contrast in a work of art and how to achieve it. Impresa Amorosa (1996) is a suite of seven generally very short onomatopoeic piano pieces, taking its name from the little pictorial love-tokens which romantic knights and their ladiesexchanged. None of them is so long as to remotely outstay its welcome but sometimes one could fret about the risk that Harrison's music tends to become becalmed. In Candle ("One light suffices in the dark"), for instance, I felt that the slightest breeze would extinguish the candle and the music but it is a graceful nocturne. Arcosolia (1999) and Aster (1995) are written for mixed chamber ensembles. Aster is a little song-cycle, of six rather cryptic sections, which opens and closes with chant-like writing for unaccompanied soprano, while its other movements match voice and instruments most imaginatively - a striking match staccato flute and violin at one point. The vocal line sung with great accuracy and confidence by Lesley-Jane Rogers, but with real affection, as well - has wide intervals but is mostly gentle and unforced. It has a wide compass, too, sometimes matching the high flute, sometimes being pushed to its deepest extreme by the persuasive cello. I'd love to hear Jane Edwards sing Aster in a concert. In fact, I'd be pleased to hear more of this interesting young woman's work.