'This is distinctive, pungent music that demands close attention' Guardian 2005


Solos and Duos for Strings and Piano 


MusicWeb International August 2016 (Rob Barnett)

Solos and Duos for Strings and Piano (TOCC0304) - is made up of many short pieces. In fact there are 39 tracks across 72 minutes. These form six works. Gallery (Room 1) for solo violin is the banner under which eleven are collected. The music is approachable, moving between Vaughan Williams (Along the Field and The Lark Ascending) and Holst (Four Medieval Songs), spiky blues, melodious legato writing, the chitter of insect flight and papery wings, sour and abrasive attack and meditative-static moments. Room 2 is in much the same region with angularity, simple songs sepia tinted, chattering aggression and hesitancy. Cymbeline's Fort (tr. 18) has an airy atmosphere track added before a gentle tune is ushered in. ... Ballare Una Passacaglia Di Ombre ... for solo violin is in the same broad ballpark.

As a break from the unadorned sound of the violin comes Hidden Ceremonies 1: Nine Fragments after Paintings by Brian Graham for solo piano. Harrison here introduces us to sepulchral muffled bells, slow moving and with long silences between single notes, nervy, fast, ruthless episodes, warm emotionality yet with complex dissonances, the stern and the taciturn, clinking railroad rhythms and a final piece (After Antler Music) in which Conlon Nancarrow might well be meeting Scott Joplin. TheThree Dances for Diana Nemorensis are for solo viola. Here Harrison's interest in the ancient world surfaces: Diana charts stuttering unconfident progress, Hecate is suitably creepy with angular virtuosity while the final Selene feels like a tentative journey through some unknown world. We end with the seven movements that make up ... under the circle of the moon ... Mansions I-VII for two violins. Here harsh discords are mixed with steely dissonance, the violins seem to emulate electronic effects in the first piece. Other sections adopt broken linkages or are articulated in a way that will require much more listening from me before I can make out the nexus. In The Thousand Songs of Thebes there's more legato which smoothes progress but again the journey takes the listener into distant kingdoms. Albrecht Dürer Self-portrait 1500 AD - The Frankfurt Zoll is more humane and as a prize there's a singular melody which has an archaic ecclesiastical caste.

Fanfare Magazine December 2015 (Colin Clarke)

"This is not the first disc of music by Australian-born, UK-residing composer Sadie Harrison I have reviewed here: Back in 2007 I wrote on An Unexpected Light (NMC records, Fanfare 31:2). It is a pleasure to welcome the present disc, this time on the enterprising Toccata label.

With regard to her piece Gallery, Harrison describes her fascination with miniature paintings, particularly those housed in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. A piece made up of micro-movements, Gallery (Rooms 1 and 2), of 2012–13, marked Harrison’s return to composition after a period out to engage in archaeology (specifically, the designs on Bronze Age pottery from the Carpathian Basin). There is an intriguing double aspect to this composition, in that Harrison used the present violinist’s paintings as starting points for her works. Harrison is a strict self-disciplinarian, and she rigorously wrote a piece a day.

Some of Peter Sheppard Skaerved’s paintings are reproduced in the accompanying booklet (there are more at peter-sheppard-skaerved.com); as when one walks around a gallery and savors the art sometimes in random fashion, so can the performer here choose his or her own order. What is most powerful here is Sheppard Skaerved’s sense of lyricism. Even in the more playful pieces (the fourth movement “Measure for Measure,” for example), it is this element that is most powerful. The close recording adds an extra layer of involvement, particularly in the abrasive final piece of Room I, “It rubs off.” There’s a lovely idea in the second set, as Harrison pens a piece entitled, “Practising Sadie Harrison.” Again, the playful side act as a foil for the prevailing lyricism, a lyricism that is directed very much inwards for “Lachrymae (Tennessee) after Cotton Eye Joe,” wherein Sheppard Skaerved’s bow control is little short of miraculous; his technique is once more tested in “Stormfactory,” while the glassy harmonics of “Cymbline’s Fort” invoke a supernatural stillness.

There are myriad influences, artfully woven together, for Harrison’s … ballare una passacaglia di ombre … of 2011. A Biber project by Sheppard Skaerved rubs shoulders with Danish fairy tales by the violinist’s wife, a mosaic by Sosos of Pergamon, two fragmentary Delphic hymns from 138 BC and Biber’s Sonata No. 16. It lasts less than four minutes, but occupies a very special, fragile space.

The Hidden Ceremonies I piece is subtitled, “nine fragments after paintings by Brian Graham” and is a 2013 work for solo piano lasting around 11 minutes. One of Graham’s inspirations is archaeology. Harrison calls the fragments, “quiet contemplations of the scarred landscape and the conjurings of dark spells and ancient ritual acts.” The stasis, the gestures that seem to work from bass up all speak of an ancient, buried past ripe for reworkings; all this while reflecting the energy of Graham’s paintings. Roderick Chadwick is an excellent interpreter (he recorded Stockhausen’s Mantra for Hathut). Each movement begins with the word “after,” emphasizing the interiorization by Harrison of Graham’s expression. The stumbling, somewhat post-Stravinskian gait of the final “after Antler Music” comes as something of a surprise. Perhaps the recording of the piano could have accorded a little more depth to the instrument. (This is the only piece not to have been recorded at St. John the Baptist Aldbury; instead it was taken down in St. Michaels, Highgate in London.)

Diana Mathews is a superb violist, her sound magnificently warm. Harrison’s Three Dances for Diana Nemorensis (2013) takes its title from a three-“headed” Goddess structure Diana-Selene-Hekate. Perhaps the number three is emphasized by Hekate’s designation of Hekate Trevia, or Hekate of the three ways (in the UK there has been an explosion of interest in this liminal Goddess over the past few years). Harrison takes as her starting point a coin from 43 BC, however, which shows the three Goddesses. The piece is magnificently mysterious, particularly the final movement, “Selene” (a moon Goddess).

Finally, there comes …under the circle of the moon… (Mansions I-VII) for two violins of 2004. There are 28 “mansions of the moon,” and each of Harrison’s seven movements is based on the number 28. Inspiration came from Dürer, the Thousand Songs of Thebes and tourmaline (the gemstone), among others. The theological/mystic ideas explored are too numerous to be listed here, but the end result is that the music speaks directly to the heart, nowhere more so than in the intertwining lines of “The Thousand Songs of Thebes,” an evocation of Osiris. The references to earlier musics, in “Albrecht Dürer Self-Portrait 1500 AD – The Frankfurt Zoll” sound perfectly natural, as does the command of the performers, particularly in the terrifyingly high, quiet lines. This movement seems to be one of Harrison’s most impressive achievements; it glows in this interpretation. The grating sounds of “Tourmaline” which follows could hardly be more different, 40 seconds that lead to the strong but less abrasive final “The Curse with Turtledoves.” Here, the violin parts are labeled “Her” and “Him” and are motivically independent of each other.

There are two sets of booklet notes here, one by the composer and one by Sheppard Skaerved. The violinist’s view on Harrison’s responses to his art is fascinating—but, importantly, not as fascinating as the music itself."

BBC Music Magazine, December 2015 (Kate Wakeling)

“This collection of works by Sadie Harrison is a vivid exploration of the miniature. No single movement exceeds four minutes and the shortest is just 24 seconds, yet these five magnetic works explore content and form with a dazzling intensity. Many of the compositions are exphrastic in nature: Hidden Ceremonies ‘fragments’ in sound the huge canvasses of contemporary artist Brian Graham in nine arresting movements for solo piano; while Gallery is by turns meditative and skittish, exploring the paintings and drawings of artist and violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved who also performs the work (and writes the disc’s engaging liner notes).

“The collection closely reflects the composer’s interest in antiquity (Harrison is also an archaeologist) with further works for solo violin and viola inspired by Greco-Roman culture, including the Three Dances for Diana Nemorensis performed with great spirit (and virtuoso foot stamping) by Diana Mathews. The disc ends with the mesmerising ..under the circle of the moon.. for violin duo. Its seven short movements take sources ranging from Durer to gemstones to human skin to Hindu cosmology, and are performed with tremendous artistry by Sheppard Skaerved joined by MIhailo Trandilovski, bringing this beautiful and intriguing disc to a powerful close.” 

The Guardian, August 2015 (Fiona Maddocks)

“Australian-born and UK-based, Sadie Harrison took some time out from composition to work as an archaeologist and professional gardener, activities which nourish these new works, mostly written in the past four years. Her fascination with fragments, minutiae and painted miniatures has resulted in five groups of tiny pieces each lasting around three minutes or less. The shortest is 24 seconds! Gallery (Rooms I and II) for solo violin – 19 musical glimpses to be played in any order – takes the paintings of the versatile violinist Peter Sheppard-Skaerved as a starting point. Hidden Ceremonies, for piano, explores prehistory as depicted through paintings by Brian Graham. Musical echoes, from Vaughan Williams to Stravinsky to Aghanistan and beyond, are woven into Harrison’s works, each glittering in their intensity.”