AMERICAN RECORDER CONCERTOS / SIERRA: Prelude, Habanera and Perpetual Motion.1 STUCKY: Etudes, Concerto for Recorder & Orchestra.2 A. NEWMAN: Concerto for Recorder, Harpsichord & Strings.3 HICKEY: A Pacifying Weapon, Concerto for Recorder, Winds, Brass, Percussion & Harp4 / Michala Petri, rec; 1Tivoli Copenhagen Phil.; Alexander Shelley, cond; 2Danish National Symphony Orch.; Lan Shui, cond; 3Anthony Newman, hpd; Nordic String Quartet; 4Royal Danish Academy of Music Concert Band; Jean Thorel, cond / OUR Recordings 8.226912
Michala Petri remains not only the most famous classical recorder player in the world, but also the most vital. There is a reason for this. Not only does she play the greatest masterpieces from the past, but she also plays, and often commissions, new works for the instrument. On this disc, she performs concerti by four American composers, of which the one really well-known name is that of Anthony Newman, the well-known organist-harpsichordist-composer, although Steven Stucky is well known in contemporary music circles.
Roberto Sierra’s Prelude, Habanera and Perpetual Motion is described in the booklet as “a further development and expansion of a 2006 composition originally for recorder and guitar.” The music opens with florid recorder swirls, around which one hears floating strings and winds and an occasional brass accent. The recorder continues, playing music that, curiously enough, sounds more Middle Eastern than Hispanic, in a minor mode with impressionistic harmonies à la Koechlin. The middle movement, “”Habanera,” also opens with the recorder, this time with pizzicato basses and a forlorn solo trumpet in the background—and, once again, the harmonic movement more strongly suggests the Middle East than Puerto Rico, where Sierra was born. A string, brass and timpani explosion comes and goes, the music receding to soft, thumping basses with unusual brass chords and the recorder above it all. What’s interesting about this, as a concerto, is that the solo part, though almost consistently present, is not really virtuosic. It is deftly woven into the evolving fabric of the music and has no “flash” about it.
Naturally the third movement, “Perpetual Motion,” is faster and more rhythmically energetic than the first two, but even here Sierra leans towards minor modes with an Eastern flavor. The recorder dances and skips above the punchy brass and drum beats while the strings and winds interject their own syncopated figures—this part of the composition, at least, sounds Hispanic. And yes, in this music Petri’s solo music is quite virtuosic, so much so that I wondered where, if anywhere, she took her breaths. Perhaps she uses circular breathing? In any event, her playing here is truly astonishing.
Steven Stucky’s Etudes, Concerto for Recorder and Orchestra was, for me, even more interesting because he uses a somewhat more individual approach to composition. His orchestral score, in the first movement, consists of a great many swirls and eddies, with rapid passages matching the dizzying flights of the solo recorder. He even throws in a brief xylophone solo for color. Yet this first movement ends quietly, with soft music. The second section, “Glides,” showcases the recorder playing chromatic and portamento passages with very light orchestration surrounding it, which creates an almost haunting quality. Sharply-accented pizzicato, and even a moment of growl trumpet, peppers the score here. At one point, Petri plays a quasi-cadenza sort of figure around the orchestra, which now includes a piano for color. I was particularly impressed by Stucky’s exceptional ear for orchestral timbres and color: he almost never uses the full orchestra en masse, but rather little bits of it at a time, and often the orchestral blends he utilizes are unusual and arresting. In the finale, “Arpeggios,” the piano opens things with a brief rhythmic figure, after which the recorder flits about while low brass and strings and xylophone interject their own brief, fast figures around her. There is just a hint of jazz in an ensuing orchestral passage, then the recorder and piano return to more lightly-scored, flitting figures, now with portamento that make it almost sound like singing cats.
Not surprisingly, Anthony Newman’s concerto, though modern in its use of sideways-moving harmony, pays homage to the music of J.S. Bach which he has played so well for so many decades. It is also the only concerto here scored not for an orchestra but just for a string quartet with Newman himself on harpsichord. The music sounds quite a bit like the kinds of pieces that Benjamin Britten wrote in the 1930s, when he was still using older classical models such as Henry Purcell and Bach himself. This is not an insult to Newman, mind you; the music doesn’t sound like a copy of Britten, just reminiscent of his earlier style. And he clearly knows how to write for the recorder, pushing Petri towards consistently virtuosic lines that ride above the flitting strings and dazzling harpsichord runs.
More surprising, to me anyway, was the second movement, titled “Devil’s Dance.” Here, Newman uses a consistently syncopated pattern of bouncing minor-key figures played mostly by the cello and viola while the two violins and recorder play above them. Later on, during the development section, the upper strings play soft serrated figures (but not as strongly syncopated) while the recorder and harpsichord weave their way around them; then the galumphing syncopations return for the final section, in which the recorder is busier than ever, playing further variations on the theme. An absolutely wonderful piece! The third movement, “Lament,” is the slow movement but really only medium-slow, more of an Andantino than an Andante or Adagio, written in Eb minor (with sideways transpositions to baffle the listener) with an almost Samuel Barber-like theme that continually shifts as it develops. In this one respect, the ability to compose music himself, Newman is better than the late, wonderful harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe, who commissioned a lot of contemporary music for her instrument but, alas, did not herself compose. In a sense—and I hope Newman will forgive me for saying this—the last movement, “Furie,” is a bit of a disappointment, not because it isn’t well-written or entertaining but because it is more conventional in many ways: melodically, rhythmically and in its form, despite a few more chromatic key changes here and there. Mind you, it’s not a bad piece, just a little disappointing after the utter brilliance of the first three movements.
Sean Hickey’s concerto for recorder, winds, brass, percussion and harp, A Pacifying Weapon, is clearly the edgiest, most modern style of music on this disc. The liner notes tell us that he began his education playing rock guitar, but fortunately went on to become a jazz guitarist before studying composition and theory at Wayne State University. The music is highly syncopated but not in a jazz sense, and after the relatively quiet opening statements from the recorder the brass, winds and percussion play alternately loud and soft figures between and behind the recorder’s statements. It’s a very quixotic piece in its own way. The liner notes tell us that Stucky wrote this in 2015 “as a personal response to contemporary world events,” but declines to say which world events. The growing nuclearization of Iran? The economic and cyber threats of China? The use of social media bots by Russia to further divide Americans? North Korea’s then-constant nuclear testing near Japan? The influx of radical terrorists across the world? Well, what the heck. I personally don’t listen to music for political views and really don’t hear this concerto in that light. It is just very good music, skillfully written and emotionally affecting. Later in this first movement we hear a fascinating passage for the percussionist playing several figures in counterpoint, and the timpani remains to support the solo recorder, into which we suddenly hear the solo harp adding light sprinkles from above before heavy brass figures interject.
The second movement is even more lightly scored, with Petri prominent throughout. The wind and brass figures, even the percussion, are softer and more muted here. My lone complaint about this movement is that it went on a bit too long, and tended to ramble. In the third movement, which is the longest, Hickey opens with muted trumpet fanfares, then moves on to low brass chords in the minor with the xylophone and recorder interjecting their own figures. Eventually the clarinet plays a repeated rhythmic figure, over which the recorder plays its own bouncy minor-key tune. Shifting syncopated rhythms and a sinister but soft undercurrent of low brass and wind figures support the recorder, with occasional louder fanfares from the trumpet section. Despite the length of this movement, (12:44) I found the music much more interesting and better developed than the second. Hickey uses a soft palette more often than not, probably to create an environment that is unsettling without being overtly menacing, and it works very well in that respect. At one point, Petri plays very low in the recorder’s range, which in itself creates a hollow, sinister sound against a backdrop of low winds and brass with harp figures. Occasionally during the development section, the recorder solo becomes quite complex but the background remains relatively simple and slightly sinister. Eventually, a surprisingly peppy march theme makes its appearance, softly at first with the recorder playing front and center, then later with louder brass choirs having their say. But what surprised me most of all was that the music became much happier and more chipper, almost sounding like one of Aaron Copland’s more advanced compositions, and it ends on a cheerful note, with a snare drum flourish.
This is clearly an interesting album, once again proving Michaela Petri’s value as a recorder player and as a champion of new music. Recommended.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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