The Australian musical establishment seems to suffer from selective amnesia about our compositional heritage. In my twenty-odd years as an Australian I have been astonished to stumble on the largely unnoticed music of, among many others, Roy Agnew, George Frederick Boyle, Nigel Butterley, Clive Douglas, Dorian le Galliene, Ann Ghandar, Helen Gifford, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Margaret Sutherland—and now John Tallis. The liner notes of this new Move CD featuring performances of Tallis’ piano works by Stefan Cassomenos are long on memoir and praise but annoyingly short on historical or musical background. No dates are provided for the works, making it hard to assess the evolution of his style—this is quite important for understanding his music’s character.
In the absence of information then, let it be said that the opening work, Tallis’ grand Piano Sonata, suggests a composer fully aware of the musical developments of the 1920s, particularly the French music of the period. This eighteen-minute work shows little of Scriabin’s harmonic or structural influence such as early Agnew displays, or the Busoni/Rachmaninov flavour of Boyle; instead, Tallis gives us yet another version of “Australian”. Unsurprisingly, given his years of study at the Royal College of Music, there is an affinity with such composers as John Ireland and Frank Bridge, but to my ears the Pictures at an Exhibition are a strong presence, too, just as Mussorgsky’s influence is palpable in Debussy. In the first movement the Liszt of the first Mephisto Waltz sets the tone, whereas Clair de Lune flavours the second; Jardins sous la pluieand Pictures provide the textural templates for the last, but Tallis manages to forge an intense and convincing whole out of these disparate parts. Perhaps not a masterpiece, the work is nonetheless solidly distinctive and memorable and deserves wider familiarity.
The remainder of the CD is more problematic. The Fantasy for Violin and Piano “based on Aboriginal themes” is somewhat tortuous; the intent is dated by its very well-meaningness. Considered as music, it is a surprisingly beautiful piece of work, decidedly recital-worthy. The overlong Sentimental Bloke paraphrase is less memorable despite its amiable, silent-movie melodiousness—Tallis’ attempted “common touch” unfortunately seems unnatural. Cassomenos continues his recital with another rather identikit work, a monotonously-textured Suite in 18th Century Style—there are many of these in the folios of (mostly young) composers and I was reminded just how much better the teenage Enescu’s effort is. Similarly, the Seven Pieces for Piano lack a distinctive voice. However, the derivativeness and, by comparison with the Sonata, unadventurous musical language would suggest that these are student works; the Incidental Music for Marlowe’s Edward II (in itself an interesting choice) was surely written for student performance.
According to Joel Crotty’s brief but useful comment quoted in the liner notes, Tallis wrote five ballet scores in the six years after 1946. A proper assessment of his work must wait until these scores are revived—a biography seems an obvious next step.