English Recorder Concertos - Harvey, Arnold, Jacob / Michala Petri
HARVEY Concerto incantato. ARNOLD Recorder Concerto. JACOB Suite for Recorder and Strings • Michala Petri (rcr); Jean Thorel, cond; City CO of Hong Kong • OUR 6.220606 (SACD: 59:06)
Titled English Recorder Concertos , this release presents three works of that genre, the first being a premiere recording by its original performers, who gave the first public performance of it in October 2009. The Concerto Incantanto of Richard Harvey (b. 1950), who is primarily known as a composer of music for films and television, is touted as “a new concerto for the Harry Potter generation.” Scored for the solo protagonist and a chamber orchestra of strings, woodwinds, piano, celeste, and percussion, its five movements (in an alternating fast-slow-fast-slow-fast sequence) sketch musical portraits of magic and spirits. Fortunately, it is mostly much better than what such an advertisement might lead one to expect; while definitely lighter fare, it is tuneful, atmospheric, and thoroughly enjoyable. As part of both the mood coloration of each of the movements and a display of virtuoso pyrotechnics, the soloist switches off at various points between sopranino, soprano, treble, and tenor recorders. The opening “Sortilegio” (Sorcery) requires use of the first three of those, with the soloist whooshing about in rapid runs and similarly tricky passagework. In the succeeding “Natura Morta” (Still Life), the composer turns to the deeper-toned tenor instrument and draws upon chiffs and other sounds and techniques from folk instruments such as the end-blown flute of North American Indians and the Chinese xiao. This is the one movement I do not care for, as portions of it sound too much like clichéd film music accompanying shots of African savannahs or dawns in East Asia and the western American plains settings. “Danza Spiriti” (Dance of the Spirits) is a scherzo that returns to both the use of sopranino and soprano recorders and to the flitting strains of the opening movement. The quiet “Canzone Sacra” (Sacred Song) that follows employs the lower register of the treble recorder and a stately hymnlike tune known as the “English Theme.” Finally, the concluding “Incantesimi” (Spells) brings the proceedings full circle with the soprano recorder chattering away in double-tonguing articulations and exhilarating flight in double-time.
Malcolm Arnold likewise composed his three-movement concerto for Petri, albeit back in 1988. It is a terrific piece, and there is no mistaking its sturdy British contours. A slightly waggish first movement in sonata form alternates between major and minor modes. The subdued second movement, a passacaglia, has an air of mystery, but again somehow suggests that it not be taken too seriously. Skipping triplets and sextuplets dominate the march-like finale.
The 1957 Suite for Treble Recorder and Strings of Gordon Jacob, a sequence of seven movements modeled upon a Renaissance dance suite, was reviewed by me in Fanfare 34:5 in a version for string quartet. Having now heard it both ways, I actually prefer the fuller-bodied chamber-orchestra version offered here.
Michala Petri hardly needs any praise from me to add to her critical laurels. Given the subject of the first work, suffice it to say that her playing here is appropriately bewitching, and the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong and conductor Jean Thorel provide excellent support. The SACD recorded sound is exceptionally spacious and full-bodied; the booklet is lavishly illustrated with color photos of scenic English countryside, Stonehenge, and shots of the performers in Hong Kong. This enchanting disc has my spellbound recommendation.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
Let’s deal with the top and bottom lines first. This is one of the best CDs of recorder music that I have ever heard. Full stop. However, four things need to be said. Firstly, that this particular instrument is not my favourite: it comes a long way down my personal batting list which is crowned by piano and cello. I guess that I associate it with my own excruciating attempts to play Greensleeves as a nine year old scholar. My contemporaries were not much better either. Secondly, the tone of the ‘English flute’ is something that needs to be heard in relatively small doses. To this end, I advise taking each of these works one by one – with small refreshment breaks in-between. Thirdly, I have never heard of Michala Petri – I ought to have. She is utterly brilliant. Finally, notwithstanding ‘point one’ above, I have long regarded the legendary John Turner as the master of recorder music. It is rare for me to listen to any work for this instrument that is not played or recorded by him. So this is, for me at any rate, new territory.
The Richard Harvey Concerto Incantato is officially billed as a ‘world premiere recording’. However I have not heard the Arnold or the Jacob before. I have discovered that Michala Petri did record the Jacob in 1984 on Philips Digital.
If I am honest, I have never heard of Richard Harvey either. Once again, I should have. For one thing he contributed to Hans Zimmer’s score for the Da Vinci Code. Born in 1953, he graduated from the Royal College of Music in 1972. He has involved himself with many genres of music – from medieval to rock – he had a progressive rock and folk band called Gryphon. One point of note: his ‘modest’ web-site (Richard Harvey: Renowned Composer, Arranger Conductor and Multi-Instrumentalist) is very difficult to read – white text on black!
Harvey’s Concerto is interesting, if not totally satisfying. When I read that he was a film-music composer, I did wonder if it would suffer from sounding like a compilation from his film scores and to a certain extent I believe this is true. However, the Concerto is a valid work in its own right. The listener needs to remember that Harvey is an accomplished recorder player – and other instruments too. His website notes that he can play some 700 different instruments from around the world! I would be delighted to manage just one well.
The Concerto Incantato was written specifically for Michala Petri and was commissioned by Leanne Nicholls for the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong’s tenth anniversary concert.
The sleeve-notes suggest an eclectic stylistic background to the work and this is exactly what we hear. The composer quite clearly draws extensively on his television and film score background, although this is supplemented by his interest in medieval music.
The concerto is written in five movements and makes use of the full set of recorders. The first movement is entitled Sorcery and I must admit does have a distinct Harry Potter mood to it. The orchestration fairly shimmers. The second is entitled Natura Morta - Still Life. Here the composer has used the tenor recorder and has had recourse to ethnic music derived from China and the native North-American flute. It is a thoughtful, almost static piece that lulls the listener into a dream-like world. The following Danza Spiriti (Dance of the Sprits) destroys the reverie. This is exciting music that chases itself around in circles. The next movement is the meditative Sacra Canzone featuring what the composer has called the English Theme. This leads to the finale which once again nods to Harry Potter – Incantesimi – Spells. This, for me, is the least impressive part of the work. The minimalist recorder figurations become tedious. However the music builds up to a hectic dance, before the English Theme is reprised. I am not sure I like the ‘medieval’ mood in parts of this movement.
In the round this is a reasonably impressive and virtuosic work – however I hold it to be a little unbalanced between the parts. If this is music for the ‘Harry Potter’ generation, as billed in the liner-notes then I am not quite convinced.
Malcolm Arnold’s 1988 Concerto was composed specifically for Michala Petri. I know that there are mixed views about the quality of this work. It is not one of my favourites from the composer’s pen. Yet there is plenty of interest and one or two touches of the ‘old’ Arnold. I guess that I am a little concerned that the balance of work is faulty. There is such a difference stylistically between the complex passacaglia of the second movement and the ‘St Trinians’ mood of the finale. And I cannot quite weigh up the opening movement. Yet the concerto has some interesting things. It probably deserves its place in the repertoire.
Gordon Jacob needs no introduction to readers of these pages. However, I think it fair to say that his music is largely under-represented in the catalogues with only nine CDs containing his music. This compares to 159 for Malcolm Arnold. The present Suite was commissioned by Arnold Dolmetsch in 1957. It has been rightly regarded as a ‘divertissement’ rather than anything more serious. It is presented in seven well-balanced movements. The Suite opens with a delightfully ‘pastoral’ Prelude. This is followed by a lively English dance which is just way too short. Then there is a Lament. However, this is not too depressing and has a ‘smoochy’ feel to it rather than one of heartbreak. The string writing here is particularly beautiful. It is the longest movement in the suite. I love the exciting Burlesca alla Rumba which is all sunshine. This is followed by an epitome of English pastoral – the Pavane. Here are impressions of fields and rivers and up-and-down dales. The penultimate movement, an Introduction and Cadenza is also illustrative of the landscape although this time in valedictory mood. For me it is the heart of the work. The finale, Tarantella is fun all the way. Jacob calls for the soprano recorder to give brightness and sparkle to the last moments of this Suite.
Michala Petri has some sixty CDs listed in the Arkiv catalogue. The range of music covered is phenomenal. From Bach to Ole Bull and from Fauré to Frederick the Great, she has recorded a huge variety of works. Noted as a child prodigy, she began playing recorder aged three, took serious lessons at five and by 11 years she made her concerto debut. She often played together with her mother Hanne, a harpsichordist and her brother David, cellist as part of the Petri Trio. Nowadays, she often gives concerts with her husband, the lutenist and guitarist, Lars Hannibal. Both Petri and her husband run their own record label – OUR Recordings. The present disc is one of more than a dozen released in the past eight years.
However, it is not just Michala Petri who has given a superb performance. Jean Thorel at the helm of the City Chamber Orchestra has contributed a sympathetic accompaniment to these three concertos.
This is an enjoyable CD that is well played and features a diverse programme. In spite of my reservations about the Malcolm Arnold Concerto and the stylistic balance of the Richard Harvey I feel that it will be essential listening for enthusiasts of recorder music. The presentation of the disc is impressive: it looks and feels good. The sound quality is excellent. I enjoyed the liner-notes – they are both informative and entertaining.
My favourite work, by a long shot, is Gordon Jacob’s Suite and I will turn to this recording to enjoy this piece on many occasions.
-- John France, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: 6220606
Label: OUR Recordings
Composer: Gordon Jacob, Malcolm Arnold, Richard Harvey
Conductor: Jean Thorel
Orchestra/Ensemble: Hong Kong City Chamber Orchestra
Performer: Michala Petri