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CD Feature/ Douglas Lilburn: "A song of Islands"

img  Tobias

Douglas Lilburn was far from being a cat, but he did have at least two lives. It would certainly seem a rewarding task to find out what made this national hero in his native New Zealand turn from being a celebrated post-romantic composer into an electro-acoustic pioneer, who worked assiduously in his own little studio and whose results in this field can easily stand the comparison with his European and American colleagues (and part of this analysis has already been achieved by the extensive radio series “The Landscape of a New Zealand composer”). While his later oeuvre has met with respect and approval, it was never quite greeted with the same kind of applause among a wider public as his orchestral efforts. Still, despite their immediate appeal, these popular favourites have never been properly documented on CD. “A Song of Islands” is the second step in rectifying this situation.

The first one was the release of his three symphonies, also on Naxos, which already hinted at what the rest of the world had been missing. What they didn’t as yet reveal was that Lilburn was probably even more adept at painting extremely poignant and focussed compositions of considerably shorter length and with an almost programmatic character, which gave him the chance of operating in a free form without any constraints. These are quasi-fantasies, overtures, “offerings” and “tone poems” with a strong reference to the landscapes of his beloved home. With a single exception, all of these pieces were written before he even sat down for his first symphony (even though some of them were to be revised at a later date), with the earliest, “Forest”, created at the age of 21. The titles already point at the themes covered here – these are celebrations of the pastoral beauty of New Zealand, of its heavenly meadowns, fluent hill silhouettes, of its peaceful spirit and loving nature. Consequently, the arrangements are lush and string-heavy, even though things never become burdensome. Lilburn doesn’t bathe in the voluptiousness of his warm chords, but rather uses the harmonic layers as metaphors for the wonderous nature around him. On a similar note, most works have a strong Leitmotiv, but instead of playing them to death, he uses them carefully and in different settings – the contrast between the sweeping and emotive loud passages and the dreamy moments of silence are striking. Many will call the tracks “filmic” and there certainly is an immanent danger of becoming overly sweet here. Possibly the best reason how to explain why they don’t is that Douglas wasn’t taking a sentimental look back on his childhood as an old man. Instead, he was still almost a boy when he wrote the classic “Aotearora” (a sort of private national anthem), with the images fresh on his mind. Compared to the sometimes “difficult” and extremely “serious” later work, these powerful and simple creations are like “Dubliners” in relation to “Portrait of the artist as a young man”.

They certainly need no explaining, which makes them a pleasure to listen to, especially with the New Zealand Symphony and James Judd treating them to a string section as smooth as hot butter on a Sunday morning toast and wooly horns imported directly from heaven. Which, on the other hand, means that this is not exactly ideal food for background listening – a music this tender and graceful is in constant danger of disappearing. When given the necessary attention, though, they definitely make a strong case for a continuation of this series – and with Lilburn continuing to compose for acoustic instruments until the 80s, there is plenty of uncovered  land. He may still have a few lives left after all.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Naxos

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