International Record review (IRR)
Michala Petri is a phenomenon, seemingly unstoppable in her pursuit of new territory for her chosen instrument. If the modern recorder has near quite achieved the high-profile status it surely had in the Baroque era, this is not for want of continued endeavor on her part - and at her hands it may even
yet happen. The child prodigy of the 1960s from Denmark, who seemed able to tackle anything from the sonatas of Handel or Telemann to the complexities of a piece such as Berio's Gesti with equal aplomb, has long since turned into a mature artist. Most recently the creation of her own record label, OUR Recordings, has enabled Petri and her guitarist husband, Lars Hannibal, to give durable form and
wide circulation to the wide variety of music they have espoused, anything from Mozart to recorder concertos from China and Viennese salon music, and much else besides.
The Chinese connection continues with the present release, which is partly the fruit of Petri's successful collaboration in 2009 with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong kong. No allowances need be made on any front, musical or technical; the accompaniments as directed by the orchestra's current chief conductor, Jean Thorel are always alert, and the recorded sound, emanating from one of the orchestra's regular showcase venues, the concert hall of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, is excellent. The booklet notes are likewise very thorough if once or twice a trifle gushing, while several evocative photographs of Stonehenge and the Lake District are included to reinforce the essential Englishness of the sonic fare on offer.
The last comes in three guises, one (from 2009) by a living British composer who likes to defy pigeon-holing, and the other two (from 1957m and 1988 respectively) by a pair of last-century Englishmen, one of whom was a pupil of the other; on the CD, the three items appear in reverse chronological order.
Thus Richard Harvey's Concerto Incantato occupies pride of place at the start of the disc - rightly so, as it was not only a commission from the present soloist but it also, at nearly 30 minutes, by some margin the most ambitious work here. The idiom is straightforwardly tonal, tuneful even, and Harvey seems characteristically determined to give the lie to the recorder's oft-proclaimed limited expressive means, though he never quite ventures into the avant-garde areas which are explored in the above-mentioned Berio piece. The five movements, neatly contrasted, some distinctly challenging for the fingers, bear pictorial titles such as 'Sorcery', 'Still Life', etc. and culminate in a lengthy finale called 'Incantations' that feels rather like a set of variations or meditations on a tune first heard in the preceding movement. Petri is required to use what the notes call 'the full set of recorders'; this seems to extend only down to the tenor recorder, but I could swear that I once caught glimpse of the rare specimen, the bass recorder. It looked rather dangerous.
The Concerto, op. 133 by Malcolm Arnold was one of the fruits of his bewitchment by Petri's playing in the late 1980s. Just when, after the sombre Ninth Symphony, he was inclined to give up composing altogether, Petri (along with Julian Lloyd Webber and his cello) somehow re-kick-started his muse. Unmistakably Arnoldian, it is a small-scale but remarkably inventive late work that harks back to the
airy tone and style of some of his much earlier pieces, the three delectable Sinfoniettas in particular. Petri has remained loyal to the piece, often performing it in concerts; she also made a 1992 recording with Okko Kamu conducting, bravely coupling it with new recorder works by Koppel, Holmboe, Kulesha and Asget Lund Christiansen - unsurprisingly, perhaps, that disc has long since vanished.
So this new performance, little different from its predecessor, is doubly welcome.
Gordon Jacob was Arnold's composition mentor when the latter was a student, principally of the trumpet, at the Royal College of Music round about the outbreak of the Second World War. Though not a vast amount of Jacob's music is heard in the concert hall these days, he was prolific in his time, seemingly allying a natural fluency to the impeccable craftsmanship predictable from so eminent a teacher. His Suite (of seven short movements, whose titles include 'English Dance', 'Pavane' and 'Tarantella') has an accompaniment for strings alone. It has only two previous recordings, I think, neither of which I have managed to hear. Petri with the ASMF and Kenneth Sillito coupled it with works by William Babell, John Baston and Handel on a 1984 release (reissued on Philips 476 164-2). More recently Annabel Knight recorded it along with an assortment of other Jacob recorder works, many originally written for Carl Dolmetsch, with the Maggini Quartet and others (Naxos 8.572364).
The Suite perhaps plumbs no great depths - nothing here does - but the layout of the music itself, plus the sheer sound of the recorder(s) and Michala Petri's playing of them, all inevitably bring to mind a
pathos, even melancholy, redolent of an earlier Elizabethan age. Thus this welcome release can truly be said to contain many 'Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not'.
Piers Burton-Page,- July/August 2012