Saturday, July 1, 2017

Music of a lost Australian composer now in its rightful place

CD Review – Frederick Septimus Kelly - “A Race Against Time” (ABC Classics)
reviewed by Clinton White


One of the great tragedies of war is the inevitable death it brings.  One often wonders if the waste of human life is worth it, particularly when it is the consequence of jealousy, greed or political obsession.

Very often the waste of human life in war can rob the world of great minds, so it behoves us to preserve what we know of those minds.  Such preservation serves to remind us and future generations of the illegitimacy, the futility of war, juxtaposing the achievements of great minds lost before they even reach their prime.

Such it was for Australian composer and pianist, Frederick Septimus Kelly.  Born in Sydney in 1881 he quickly gained an international reputation, not only for his musical prowess, but also as an athlete.  His rowing eight won gold for England in the 1908 Olympic Games, equalling the record set in 1897.  But music was his first interest and love.  According to one of his brothers, rowing was more a dabble.

After signing up for WWI service, he survived Gallipoli but, on November 13, 1916 at the age of 36, he was killed in the liberation of Beaumont-Hamel in the last major battle of the Somme conflict.

In his project, The Flowers of War, Christopher Latham has sought to honour artistic Australians lost in WWI.  After eight years of research, discovering Kelly and uncovering his prolific output, Latham recorded a 2-CD set of his music.

The music itself is charming and delightful, sometimes mournful, but always very tuneful and, as one might have said around the time of WWI, pleasant to the ear.  As one might expect in a project like this, several world premiere recordings are included.  One of them is Kelly’s unfinished, three-movement, piano sonata, written in France during the year of his death.  Another is perhaps his last work, “The Somme Lament”, written less than three weeks before he was killed.

For the recording, Latham gathered a group of highly-accomplished Australian artists, including Canberra favourites, soprano Louise Page, mezzo Christina Wilson, and pianist Alan Hicks.  Latham himself features, playing violin.  Also appearing are the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Sydney-born tenor Andrew Goodwin, Melbourne-born pianist Caroline Almonte, and frequent visitor to Canberra, pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska.

The music and artists make classy ingredients for a highly entertaining album the listener will enjoy from beginning to end.  Perhaps it simultaneously will make the listener sad, knowing that such extraordinary talent in Kelly was lost in the so-called “war to end all wars”.

Reading the extensive liner notes will underscore the loss, but make the music no less enjoyable, especially in the thought that Frederick Septimus Kelly’s musical legacy is preserved and in its rightful place for future generations.