Lavish collections of Australian composers’ orchestral work are sadly all too rare, making this is a disc to be treasured. It contains four substantial works by Richard Mills written over a two-decade period, beginning with 1989’s Bamaga Diptych and progressing chronologically to 2008’s Symphony of Nocturnes.

Richard Mills has long enjoyed a multifaceted career; he first rose through the ranks of the orchestra as a percussionist before making a name as a composer and conductor. His commitment to Australian music has been profound, cemented recently by his exhaustive 20-disc Australian Composers Series leading the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, so the dedicated focus here on his own music is well deserved.

The works here are classic Mills: sweeping and confident, full of malleable shapes and exotic turns of phrase. His renowned magic as an orchestrator is abundant here, with bold colours reminiscent of Ravel and Stravinsky shining through each score. To my ears there is little precedent or parallel for this kind of music here in Australia, although perhaps the lush romanticism of Richard Meale and the energetic optimism of Carl Vine come close. As always with Mills there are strong elements of fantasy and imagination at play, with nods towards the gothic and macabre; less expected perhaps is the strong undercurrent of faith, heard recently in the Passion According to St Mark and expressed in Tenebrae of 1992. 

What lingers from this disc, wonderfully played by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (under the composer’s firm direction), is that Mills’s music is as much about ideas as the evocative sounds on the surface. 

Interview

“I’ve made many, many CDs so there’s an element of routine about it. With this recording there was a tremendous amount of work to get through over four days in the busy working life of the Melbourne Symphony. My job was made much easier by the excellent sound engineer and producer, and the goodwill and engagement of the orchestra in the project. I’ve been involved with the MSO as a guest conductor since 1982. We go back an awful long way together and it’s a very fine orchestra – our best, in my opinion. There’s a sound and a cultivation that comes from the very strong musical traditions of Melbourne. 

“Conducting and composing are two completely different habits of mind, and I find it very hard to work on both intensely at once – that’s why after I’ve finished my organ concerto I’m not writing any more music until after the Ring Cycle in 2013. Certainly practical knowledge of the orchestra has helped me to orchestrate more elegantly. 

“The title work of the album was a commission for Oleg Caetani’s first season as music director of the MSO. The piece is in the form of a diary, but a diary without specific dates and times. The ‘entries’ are more on the level of pure music, incident and thematic process, and the finale combines all the elements of this journal in sound together.

“My favourite work on the album is Symphony of Nocturnes which was written for the theatre, but certainly Tenebrae is a very personal piece because it came from a difficult period of my life, watching a friend die very slowly. All these pieces have an element of the autobiographical in them – they’re part of everything I’ve done, like an intimate diary and a record of my creative life that I’m now able to share thanks to the Melbourne Symphony’s beautiful playing and ABC Classics’ backing of the project”. Richard Mills