Album Review: Bird Spirit Dreaming/ HD Duo/Da Vinci Classics

Album Review: Bird Spirit Dreaming

HD Duo – Michael Duke, saxophone and David Howie, piano

Da Vinci Classics

Bird Spirit Dreaming is a recent release from the Australian ensemble, HD Duo on the Da Vinci Classics label. The duo, comprising saxophonist Michael Duke and pianist David Howie, perform seven works by Australian composers which showcase bespoke pieces for saxophone and piano, along with transcriptions of other works. On the album, Duke plays soprano saxophone with Howie; violinist Evgeny Sorkin, cellist Julian Smiles and percussionist Kevin Man join in selected tracks.

The combination of instruments is striking. The soprano saxophone provides a bright but smoothly rounded melody line to the harmonic potential of the piano; when the cello is included, there is an added depth and richness to the sound, while the violin sings high above them all. Percussion provides the rhythmic drive and variation.

The players perform new and transcribed repertoire for the saxophone, an instrument that is increasing in its ‘classical’ potential and gives a platform to Australian composers. Perhaps most importantly, it illustrates, in the hands of a virtuosic performer, the potential of the (soprano) saxophone. Duke demonstrates his expertise and the capabilities of the instrument at the extremes of its range. He draws a spectrum of colours and nuanced phrasing in repertoire that ranges from the poignancy of Brenton Broadstock’s  I Touched Your Glistening Tears to the jaunty Cloud Nine by Matthew Orlovich and the eerie Night Dance by Matthew Hindson.

In Rockpool Dreaming for soprano saxophone, piano, violin and cello, composer Peter Sculthorpe aimed for a “poetic work, one with more fluidity of movement, and one with a slightly Asian flavour.” Syncopation and cross rhythms disguise the sense of a strict rhythm as the saxophone, violin and cello play meandering motifs. The salt hangs lightly in the air as we hear the cello emulating the calls of seagulls. The insistent piano figures somewhat dominate, perhaps a result of mixing rather than a heavy hand. The coda is more beautifully balanced, leading to a tongue-in-cheek ending.

The title track, Bird Spirit Dreaming by Ross Edwards, originally an oboe concerto in three movements, was dedicated to legendary Sydney oboeist Diana Doherty, who premiered the piece with Lorin Maazel conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2002. The piece was reprised by the SSO as recently as 2023 in commemoration of Edwards’ 80th birthday. The live  performance includes a dramatic element with movement and lighting which clearly can’t be reproduced on a recording. However, the piece by itself contains plenty of interest. This is the first transcription for (soprano) saxophone. Duke plays an opening movement that is blithe and free, as the saxophone flutters and trills through time and tempo changes. Modal motifs give it a distinctly Orientalist feel carried through the second movement, which Duke and Howie play with more introspection, the saxophone reaching high into its register. Percussionist Kevin Man leads into the third movement with the rhythm sticks which ends in a punchy finale.

Brenton Broadstock’s powerful I Touched Your Glistening Tears is a challenging trio for soprano saxophone, cello and piano which reflects on the composer’s experience as the parent and carer of a disabled child. The players give tender voice to these sentiments, a silky legato from the cello and saxophone over a slowly motoric piano part blurred with a shimmering sustained pedal. The rich timbres and harmonic potential of the piano rise with the saxophone to a raging climax. The pause before the drop in mood underpinned by a tremolo deep in the cello indicates a resignation and calm acceptance of fate.

Matthew Hindson’s Night Pieces for soprano saxophone and piano is another piece that has been migrated from the oboe repertoire, adapted by Hindson himself. Comprising two contrasting movements, Night Song and Night Dance, Duke plays the lyrical Night Song melody over a piano part of sparse open fourths and fifths.  Night Dance has a darkly coloured and ominous flowing introduction with a thunderous piano part followed by an intensely chromatic and rhythmic section decorated with microtones. The saxophone whoops, warbles and sighs conjuring up creatures of the night in a macabre dance.

Th­e Perfumed Calyx for soprano saxophone and piano by Lyle Chan was commissioned by HD Duo for this album. The perfume really does go to the head in this soothing aria. Influenced by the music of Ravel, the Impressionistic feel is given full reign, creating a sound that is “beauty, sensuality and melody” as the composer intended.

An Endless Ripple II for soprano saxophone and piano also, by Broadstock is a sequence of endlessly cycling motifs creating a lustrous whirlpool of sound.

The album ends with a flourish. Matthew Orlovich’s Cloud Nine in three movements, titled Joyful, Dark and Stormy and Playful, leaves me upbeat with its sunny rhythms reminiscent of a jazzy, jaunty cakewalk.

Comprehensive notes and biographies in the accompanying booklet make for a thoroughly enjoyable and innovative collection of music at the cutting edge of repertoire for the soprano saxophone and instrumental ensemble.

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©


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