Imaginations, the latest album by Matt Withers and the Acacia String Quartet, is many things, not least of which is a cohesive double-disc album of attractive, accessible new music for guitar and/or string quartet. It contains work commissioned by or for both the quartet and the tireless Australian guitarist and new music entrepreneur. It also captures on record some of the first fruits from the innovative Matt Withers Australian Music Composition Competition (MWAMCC), a project launched by the guitarist to enhance the repertoire with a series of new Australian works. Finally, several works here take their inspiration from the paintings of Queensland-based Sue Needham, a visual artist inspired by Australia and the seas surrounding it, and herself a keen supporter from the outset of Withers’ Competition.
The first disc opens with Richard Charlton’s Shorelines, a three-movement work inspired by Needham’s Stormy Seashore trilogy. Brooding strings laced with pointillist pizzicato effects support a series of lyrical evocations on guitar full of rhythmic verve and dynamic contrasts. Like the rest of the album, it’s beautifully engineered, perfectly balanced with just enough aural space around the individual instruments to catch every nuance. Withers, clean, unfussy performance is matched with immaculate grace by the Acacias. Looking at the same paintings from a different perspective, Nava Ryan’s Solitude is a memorably reflective work that won the impressive young Queenslander the under-25 emerging composer award at the MWAMMC, while the paintings also inspired Rick Alexander’s Storming, which with its catchy syncopated central section placed second in the 2018 MWAMMC.
Equally likeable is Wade Gregory’s jazzy, delightfully wrong-footed Water Music. Another three-movement work, it won the 2018 MWAMMC and its easy to see why. Among the works for quartet only is Moya Henderson’s moody Kudikynah Cave, a 1986 work evoking the Tasmanian wilderness and dedicated to Bob Brown. More upbeat is Topology founder Robert Davidson’s joyous, light-flecked Forest, a work evoking a walk in a Queensland rain forest, which finds an ideal soloist in Withers’ sensitively paced account. The same composer’s Landscape for guitar and string quartet is a variety-packed riot of motor rhythms, wonderfully finessed by all five players.
If I had to choose favourites, my top three would have to include Nick Wales’ shape-shifting, minimalist-inspired Harbour Light, a work typical of this composer’s fertile imagination and musical spirit. Philip Houghton’s mercurial Amber is a skillfully constructed musical triptych in which two ear-tickling toe-tappers (Dance and Initiation) surround Dream, a strikingly profound meditation for guitar over warmly evocative strings. Perhaps best of all is Gordon Kerry’s multi-hued four-movement String Quartet No 5, a really substantial piece in which three lively, shorter movements are balanced by a deeply felt fantasia on a Welsh hymn tune beloved by Kerry’s late aunt (for who the work was commissioned as a memorial).
Imaginations is a genial, but also thought-provoking pair of discs that repay repeated listening. Withers and the Acacias have done the Australian music scene several favours here. Recommended.
Performer: Matt Withers g, Acacia Quartet
Catalogue Number: ABC Classics 4817895 (2CD)