Peter Sculthorpe (born 1929), the dean of contemporary Australian composers, has had a remarkably prolific career, and Tall Poppies' release of the third volume of his string quartets in celebration of his 80th birthday is an indication that his age has in no way slowed him down. These string quartets, his 14th through his 17th, date from 1998 to 2007, and at the time of this release, he was at work on commissions for two more. Although his musical language has changed over the course of his career, a core commitment to the landscapes and cultures of Australia, and by extension, to the broader Pacific Rim, and to oppressed indigenous groups throughout the world, has provided the context for his musical thought. Each of the quartets recorded here is at least to some degree programmatic, several with a theme of identification with oppressed peoples, the 14th with the fate of Tasmanian Aboriginals, the 15th with the peoples of New Guinea, the 16th with the plight of asylum seekers detained by the Australian government, and the 17th with Captain Cook's landfall in Australia in 1770, the year of Beethoven's birth, a connection the composer exploits by references to Beethoven's final quartet, Op. 135. The music's expressive palette spans the song-like lyricism of the third movement of the 14th quartet to the abrasive dissonance of the fourth movement of the 16th. What is constant throughout these works is a rhythmic propulsiveness that drives them forward. Sculthorpe's imagination is not consistent in its quality; movements of great beauty or excitement can be adjacent to some startlingly banal and routine sections. He is guilty of an excessive use of the device of "seagulling," a glissando on harmonics that in moderation is wonderfully effective and does in fact sound just like a seagull, but it recurs so often that it loses its impact and seems like an affectation or formula thrown in indiscriminately to fill lapses in inspiration. The Goldner String Quartet, which also recorded the first two albums in the series, and has plans for a fourth, plays with precision, spirit, and great passion. These are intensely committed, first-rate performers who are devoted to this music. Tall Poppies' sound is clean, natural, and nicely ambient.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins
|String Quartet No. 14 ("Quamby")|
|String Quartet No. 15|
|String Quartet No. 16|
|String Quartet No. 17|