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Andrew ANDERSON (b. 1971)
Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor [35:02]
Piano Quartet No. 2 [29:59]
Australia Piano Quartet
rec. 2018 Recital Hall West, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, Australia

Most of us would probably be hard-pressed to come up with the names of five, let-alone ten composers, contemporary or otherwise, from that vast island-continent on the other side of the world. But even then I doubt whether the name of Andrew Anderson would feature very highly, if, indeed, at all.

With my avowed predilection for works from the Romantic era or earlier, it felt rather strange that there I was now, eager to audition two chamber-works written in 2010 and 2018 respectively. But then in today’s online world, it’s the easiest thing to sample a few snippets of virtually any work, to give you a taste for what to expect. Navona Records’ promo material about Anderson and his latest CD, had somewhat whetted my appetite, and, after I’d listened to the short soundbites, something in his music seemed to have an immediate appeal, thus arousing my curiosity to hear more.

Anderson studied composition with Rodney Ford, violin with Barbara O'Reilly, and piano with Arvon McFadden in Melbourne, Australia, and has been active in a variety of different genres, including chamber music. Anderson has written his own sleeve notes, where he outlines in words, what he sets out to express in his music. The first Piano Quartet is described as ‘in C minor’, and this is clearly evident throughout the work. It was completed in 2011 and revised a year later, and Anderson alludes to the fact that the two outer movements are both in sonata form. If you’ve ever played Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite for piano duet, or know the String Orchestral version, Anderson’s opening theme bears an uncanny resemblance to Warlock’s second piece of the suite – his Pavane – though here in C, rather than G minor. But the harmonic turn which Anderson adds at the end, becomes one of the features of his writing, which in this work relies mainly on simple diatonic major or minor triads, but often involving some unusual, though nevertheless attractive harmonic juxtapositions and musical side-steps, which really give the music a unique character

The slow movement begins very much in a chromatic vein, where the composer shows a well-studied, disciplined use of contrapuntal technique, something that will indeed feature again later, and which attests to the highly-polished degree of workmanship in music that somehow still manage to sound simple in overall concept.. The third movement provides the Scherzo, with a calmer middle section that could equally function as a lullaby, before a highly-effective finale, where Anderson really shows off his contrapuntal prowess, brings the First Quartet to an exciting close. Somewhat unusually, Anderson identifies each of the four movements simply by a Roman numeral – Movement I, Movement II etc.

While still having a recognisable tonality, the Piano Quartet No 2 suggests no designated key in its title. Even though it was completed in 2018, some eight years after the first, Anderson’s music style has definitely moved on. Whereas there was scarcely a really dissonant note in the earlier quartet, in the second the harmony is decidedly more astringent at times, where some small clashes do occur, even though these tend to be the result of linear part-writing, rather than collisions deliberately elicited harmonically, as witness the frequent ‘false-relations’ encountered in the music of Purcell and his contemporaries. But that lovely, rich lyricism which made such an impression in the First Quartet still blossoms in the second, and now all the more poignantly because it often represents a greater release of tension, after some slightly more dissonant passages.

Unlike the First Quartet, the Second is conceived in two parts, each introduced by the same elegiac theme played by a solo string instrument. The second part opens by looking back to the world of modality and medieval organum, after which a number of contrasting sections follow, including one especially-frenetic passage of irresistible power and drive. On first listening it’s likely that the First Quartet will make the greater impression. But the more familiar you become with the Second, you will surely come to realise how much technical progress Anderson has made as a composer, and allow the Second Quartet gradually to nudge the first out of pole position.

Briefly returning to Navona Records’ description of the CD, while they mention that the First Quartet is ‘profoundly reminiscent of the virtuoso chamber works of Dussek and Hummel, with a dash of Dvořk’, or that the ‘Second Quartet starts out with harmonic undertones of Sacchini’s quartets, and the sort of melancholia of Schubert’s ‘Da sie hier gewesen’, it does seem to me as if they’ve just picked these names somewhat randomly, as, indeed, there could have been many more-familiar composers they could cited, by way of stylistic models.

But I do agree with Navona Records’ overall appraisal of Anderson’s music. For, despite both quartets – the First in particular – appearing to be somewhat anachronistic, they don’t merely come across as some kind of eclectic remix. It is purely Anderson’s style, and one he has developed, honed, and refined, which also possesses that admirable duality of being something both instantly accessible to the casual listener, while, at the same time, well-constructed, with clear intent as to matters of form, harmony, and more than enough technical complexity to satisfy the more analytical academic.

In the final analysis, what significantly adds to this CD’s real desirability is, I feel, the superb and totally committed performance by the Australia Piano Quartet, and I doubt whether there could be any finer advocates of Andrew Anderson’s works. The added benefit of such an open-sounding and natural recording too, simply provides the icing on the cake.

Philip R Buttall

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