Review: Perth Guitar Quartet’s West Australian Landscapes

Perth Guitar Quartet
West Australian Landscapes

Perth Guitar Quartet’s (PGQ) debut album, West Australian Landscapes, is long overdue.

The ensemble was established in 2013 by Melissa Fitzgerald as an offshoot of her PhD at the Academy of Performing Arts. At that time there were no professional classical guitar quartets in WA. As Nigel Westlake’s guitar quartet formed a part of Melissa’s study, she decided to found one. Since then the PGQ has gained an impeccable reputation for its ‘innovative interpretations,’ complex explorations of the classical guitar and commissioning of new works by West Australian composers. It has also gone through a number of line-up changes.

The only original member remaining is Melissa. Jameson Feakes joined in 2014, Jonathan Fitzgerald (relation) in 2015, while the newest member, Don Candy came on board in 2022 to replace Duncan Gardiner in the lead up to the recording of this exquisite album.

The quartet present a selection of high-profile performances every year, some years more than others. As well as a tour of the South West, past concerts include the Perth International Guitar Festival, the Guitar Society at WAAPA, the Grove Library and most memorably, Sound from the Ground, two sold-out concerts at the East Perth Cemetery in 2016 at which Duncan Gardiner’s Stone, Shell, Bone and Feather was premiered. This work, inspired by the haunting, historic cemetery, was commissioned by the National Trust of Australia. Gardiner sadly passed away last year before his fine, eight-part composition, which closes the album, was recorded.

All up, West Australian Landscapes contains four works that cover the broad range of classical guitar styles. The first two pieces, Robert Davidson’s Three Moods, and Lydia Gardiner’s (no relation) The Town of Wind, each comprising three interconnected parts, were commissioned by the ensemble. The third, Nicholas Bannon’s Ensemble for Six Guitars was presented to the quartet by the composer and recorded with guest artists Emily Hobday and Julius Yu.

The first two works are extraordinarily visual, thanks in no small part to their titles.

Davidson’s Three Moods — a bright, lyrical work, is an ode to Perth.

The upbeat, interweaving melodies of the opening, Sunlight on the Swan River, captures, both the vast and brilliant West Australian light, and the image of sunlight atomising on the wind-rippled river. The unexpected chordal shifts, reminiscent of the legendary American guitarist Ralph Towner, capture the sudden changes in the direction of the wind (what sailors used to call ‘darkies’).

Jameson Feake’s gentle six-string acoustic bass, which features throughout Three Moods, provides the perfect foil for the contrapuntal melodic lines, leaving the impression of being in a small sailboat as it trips over Matilda Bay.

The second movement, Sunrise, begins slowly, with mild melancholy, as if in anticipation of the appearing sun, builds through a Bach-like counterpoint of triplets and trills as the sun breaks then rises above the horizon, then slows down to a dramatic closing chord as it ascends into the sky.

The final movement, Cottesloe, is more playful. Again sunny, it begins with an image of waves gently lapping the sand on a bright summer’s day, then becomes effervescent and mildly chaotic as the many melodic lines move against each other, mimicking the influx of people onto the beach, jogging the pathways or spilling out from the seaside cafes. It captures perfectly the essence of that pine-peppered strand.

Lydia Gardiner’s The Town of Wind is a more experimental work. This highly talented young composer (b. 1999) uses this work to push the boundaries of the guitar’s string harmonics (the delicate, meta-string alternative to fret-based note picking). In this she pushes the textures of the guitar into under-explored areas on its outer edge.

In wind, leaves the commencing harmonics mimic exactly the sound of a wind chime in a gentle breeze. As the tempo increases and the contrapuntal lines grow in intensity, you can picture leaves falling then blowing over the ground in an ever stronger gusts.

The second movement, branches, roots, picks up exactly where the first ended then breaks in two. A soft and very quiet slide up and down the bass strings, the roots underground trembling as the tree sways, contrasted with higher pitched, gradually building chords and harmonics, as the branches wave.

The final movement, earth, sky, picks up again on its predecessor’s closing line but then moves into more discordant territory. There are more harmonics but with a darkness to them, like quick moving clouds casting shadows across the land.

Perth, along with Chicago and Wellington, is known as one of the three windiest cities in the world  but this work is also somehow reminiscent of WA’s other windswept city, Albany.

Englishman Nick Bannon, a former teacher with Dr Jonathan Fitzgerald at the UWA School of Music, describes himself as a composer of ‘chamber works that explore the interactive nature of acoustic communication.’ The more mundane, descriptive title of his single movement piece, Ensemble for Six Guitars, gives no scope for visualisation, allowing only for a purely aural response.

Although inspired very much by contemporary Western Australia, the piece has a stronger pre-post-modernist feel, a style that has sometimes wryly, often unfairly, been termed post-enjoyable. Coming from a older, more fractious space, it is nonetheless haunting, evocative and beautiful, conjures deep, sometimes dark and tense emotions, but overall is truly cathartic. There is beauty in fractiousness. The contrapuntal lines build in intensity then fade to dramatic pauses, only to build again into of cacophony of dissecting lines. Not for the faint-hearted, it’s rewards however are subtle and compelling.

The climax of the album is Duncan Gardiner’s Stone, Shell, Bone and Feather. The range of guitar styles covered in this eight-part work is stunning. From the grand Dowland-like chordal movements of the opening When our heads are bowed with woe, through the classical baroque counterpoint of In Paradisum (very Bach), the driven ostinato of Vital spark of heavenly flame, to the more modern deconstructions of Hymn of the dead and the modal Feathers at sunset, the mastery of techniques and understanding of the guitar and its history is phenomenal.

This work contains it all, a deep reflection on life and death, the wonder underpinning our mortal coil, its grandeur and gentleness, darkness and light, to end on a glorious note of hope in the lyrical Midar. The deep emotion the musicians felt in recording this work after Gardiner’s death is palpable, adding another layer of poignancy to this masterful work.

Australian classical music is often inspired by the magnificent landscapes of this vast country but to date the focus has been typically on the land east of the WA border. This album redresses the imbalance. In the range of styles, techniques and textures it covers, the PGQ, not only capture elements of the dramatic and intricate WA landscape, but give the classical guitar a comprehensive workout. It’s a delight to listen to.

West Australian Landscapes was launched in a concert in July this year at UWA’s Callaway Auditorium as a part of the Perth International Classical Guitar Festival. It was also the featured album on ABC’s Classic FM in the week of September 11. The ensemble plans to tour it and their other repertoire to the eastern states in the not too distant future. They are certain to impress concert audiences there with their exemplary performance.

The album is available on all streaming services and can be downloaded through the PGQ website. The site also contains selected footage of their concerts including Sound from the Ground.