Tall Poppies


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 TP (1-901)


Don Kay: Bird Chants

Vanessa Sharman, piano

$23   (Australian dollars)


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Don Kay is an Australian composer residing in Tasmania, who has written an impressive oeuvre of piano music. This collection contains works written over ten years from 1998. Each work was written for a particular pianist whose personalities influenced the style of writing. Each of these dedicatees have, or have had, ongoing connections to Tasmania (Ian Munro, David Bollard, Michael Kieran Harvey, Vanessa Sharman). The music is always listenable and by turns challenging and charming.

Tall Poppies is proud to release this first recording dedicated to Don Kay’s work. He studied composition with Malcolm Williamson in the early 60s, and has written works in most genres.

Vanessa Sharman was born in Tasmania and retains close connections with her home state whilst living and teaching in Sydney. In Australia she has studied with Eric Mitchell, Beryl Sedivka and Geoffrey Lancaster, and in Paris with Cécile Ousset and Yvonne Loriod. She has a particular interest in contemporary music and has worked closely with Don Kay. This is her debut CD.

Don KaySonata 1 for Piano (1998)
Introduction, Scherzo and Postlude (1995)
Different Worlds (1999)
Bird Chants (1998/99)
In Memoriam, Malcolm Williamson (2004)
Sonata 5 for Piano: Full Circle. (2008)


Recorded in late 2009, Bird Chants is a compilation of various works for solo piano written by the notable Tasmanian composer Don Kay, performed by Sydney-based pianist/teacher Vanessa Sharman.

The album opens with Kay’s Sonata 1 for Piano and closes with his fifth contribution to the piano sonata repertory. Written ten years apart, both works consist of three movements involving a fast-slow-fast temporal structure, and involve elements of “folk” or “work” songs: Kay indicates in the liner-notes that the first sonata includes elements of Irish and Scottish ballads, while the fifth incorporates a quotation from a harvest hymn.

Each piece on the album is characterised by strong rhythmic and melodic themes. Vibrant, playful sections provide effective contrasts against more lyrical and languorous music and ballad-like melodies are juxtaposed against modernist, dissonant flourishes. Kay’s musical language is clearly steeped in the Western art-music tradition, but he also professes an enchantment with the sounds of nature. Kay manages to integrate these two seemingly disparate influences into his compositional approach, and mentions that “weather and landscape, for example, have inspired asymmetrical patterning with short recurring motifs involving subtle shifts and changes."

On this recording, the influence of nature on Kay’s musical thinking is, of course, also relevant to the piece Bird Chants, a homage to Olivier Messiaen.

Intended to musically evoke the sounds of birdsong, this piece was composed specifically with Sharman, who studied in France with Messiaen’s widow, the renowned piano pedagogue Yvonne Loriot, in mind.

While Sharman’s performances are generally superb - in particular, her rendition of the hauntingly beautiful two-movement piece Different Worlds -some of the slower works, such as the elegiac in Memoriam, Malcolm Williamson, suffer from a slight “clunkiness” which somewhat inhibits the lyrical musical intentions. Furthermore, while the performances are often effective, I can’t help but wonder whether more extreme contrasts in terms of touch, technique and dynamics may also have been fitting in order to highlight the eclectic nature of the music itself.

Having been previously (and shamefullyl) unfamiliar with the piano music of Don Kay, I have become thoroughly enamoured by his musical language, which is rhythmically infectious, melodically intriguing, and, most importantly, extremely beautiful.
Courtney Day
Music Forum February 2011

Don Kay was born at Smithton in 1933 and studied composition in London with Malcolm Williamson from 1959 to 1964. He has produced a large body of work for solo instrumental, chamber, vocal, choral, orchestral and concerto forms. This disc presents much of the piano music he composed between 1995 and 2008. Two piano sonatas – Nos 1 (1998) and 5 Full Circle (2008) frame four other pieces. Don Kay's musical language is accessible and often poetic. Sometimes he is abstractly experimenting with sound and texture (Different Worlds), at other times responding to the sounds of nature as in his tribute to Olivier Messiaen (Bird Chants). His In Memoriam, Malcolm Williamson is particularly memorable and poignant.
Peter Donnelly
The Mercury October 2, 20010

This CD is a significant opportunity: to record a major portion of the output of one of Australia’s senior composers for solo piano. The works presented here cover the period from 1995 to 2008 and were written by Kay for some of the finest pianists in Australia. It is a major undertaking for Sharman, for whom Kay’s Bird Chants and Sonata 5 were written.

Sonata 1 is a surprisingly sparsely textured work. even in the lyrical second movement. Formally, it is not surprising, but Kay’s compositional craft and his ability to control his pitch material and his use of contrasting dynamics (mirroring the contrasting moods and pitch worlds between each of the movements) reveal a composer at full maturity, able to connect the large-scale with the small. Kay wrote the work originally for Ian Munro, and Munro’s ability to command a wide range of piano textures and dynamics. Sharman is able to match the expressive and artistic requests this piece makes. It's an impressive performance.
Introduction, Scherzo and postlude shares with Sonata 1 quick contrasts and sudden, but not jarring, shifts in the pitch world. Sharman is up to the technical and more "showy" demands of this work. She is also on form in the performance of Different Worlds, originally written for David Bollard in 1999. Bollard’s work as a chamber musician has made him one of the more sensitive pianists I have heard (or turned pages for). The challenge for Kay, particularly in the first movement, seems to have been to catch that sensitivity in sound, and for Sharman to perform with great sensitivity. Both deliver. The first movement is hauntingly beautiful and takes its time to make its point, but the wait is worth it. Sharman's lyricism and senses of line and drama are very evident in this recording. Don’t listen to this on the drive home from work, but in the silence of the concert hall or between the earphones, with eyes shut. In the second movement Sharman proves herself up to the rhythmic challenges presented by Kay. Her touch is totally different too, matching and catching the precision needed. This is a very accomplished pianist!

The title track, composed for Sharman, is a wonderful chance for two fine artists to explore their relationships with the music of Messiaen. Kay’s strength here is that he doesn’t resort to homage through pastiche. An individual voice emerges, which Sharman is able to champion through her own intimate knowledge of the French composer. This is a very interesting work that is superbly played.

Sonata 5, while it has some of the same formal concerns as Sonata 1, is a far more richly textured work, more in keeping with the sorts of sounds that capture Sharman’s innate sense of drama and the passion with which she approaches the piano. Like the other work mentioned here, this work owes something to the personality of the pianist. But Sharman’s interpretative skill allows her to bring elements of her own personality, formidable technique and expressive power to these recordings - which, as usual, are beautifully captured by Tall Poppies. The result here is a fine team and a very important contribution to the recording of Australian music.
Houston Dunleavy
Music Forum February 2010

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 TP (1-901)



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