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Fanfare (US) it goes without saying that anything this superstar pairing puts its hands to will be extraordinary.

February 28, 2015

Ronald E. Grames

Collections: Instrumental

UK DK  Michala Petri (rcr); Mahan Esfahani (hpd)  OUR RECORDINGS 6.220611 (SACD 66:27)

ARNOLD Sonatina for Recorder and Piano, op. 41. H. CHRISTIANSEN It is Spring. JACOB Sonatina for Recorder and Harpsichord. An Encore for Michala. HOLMBOE Sonata for Recorder and Harpsichord. KIDANE Tourbillon. BRITTEN Alpine Suite. BORUP-JØRGENSEN Fantasia

Hard on the heels of the marvelous Arcangelo Corelli sonata CD from this duo, featured in Fanfare 38:4, is this delightful fraternal twin of a release. Where the Corelli release explored the expected estate of harpsicord and recorder, this release turns its attention to the less well-known 20th-century revival of the instruments in new music. Central to this has been the advocacy of contemporary music for the recorder by virtuoso Michala Petri. Benjamin Britten is the only composer here with no connection to Petri, and in fact he left no solo work for recorder and harpsichord, though he played the baroque wind instrument and used it in several opera scores. Alpine Suite (1955) is a set of short impressions of a skiing trip to Switzerland. One of the trio of travelers injured an ankle and Britten wrote—and joined in the performance of—a suite for recorder trio to pass the time. That version has been recorded by the Flautadors for Dutton Epoch, and it also appears in the Decca Britten Complete Works. This is an arrangement by Esfahani and Petri which, while it creates a very different effect than the original with its close-harmony homogenous trio, is still quite charming.
The other piece not written for Petri is the Malcolm Arnold Sonatina, op. 41. Composed in 1953 (not 1962 as cited in the track listing) it is the last of a set of four sonatinas written for colleagues and friends. Piano provided the original accompaniment. Played with harpsichord, a change sanctioned by the composer for Petri and her harpsichordist mother Hanne, the plucked sound of the harpsichord adds an eerie background to the arcadian recorder and a lighter feel to the Chaconne. Both work, with little to choose in the Rondo finale, though it must be said that hearing again Jill Kemp’s recording (MMC)—the only one with recorder and piano—makes me appreciate all the more Petri’s remarkable breath control and the flawless intonation it supports.
Several of the pieces here date from when Petri played in a trio with her mother and cellist brother David and some were written by family friends. Avant-garde composer Henning Christiansen wrote It is Spring (1970) for Petri when she was 12. It is the antithesis of Darmstadt-inspired radicalism: tonal, unsophisticated, inspired by nature, it evokes the longing for birdsong and warmth at the end of a long Northern winter. Similarly accessible, though not so purposefully naïve, the Sonata, op. 145 was the third work written by another family friend, Vagn Holmboe, for the Petri ensemble. It is also inspired, as are many of his works, by the beauty of nature, and is notable for the restrained emotionalism of the writing, especially in the haunting Andante. The Allegro scherzando final movement appealingly requires Petri to vocalize as she plays, a skill that amused and impressed another composer, Gordon Jacob. Jacob was not a family friend, but so struck was he by Petri’s playing of his Suite for Treble Recorder and String Quartet that he agreed to write a piece for her and her mother. The result was this Sonatina for Recorder and Harpsichord, completed in 1983 when Jacob was 88. It is a four-movement work of great charm, very much in Jacob’s warmly idyllic neo-Classical style. Its lovely melodies and perfectly shaped structure show no diminution of his powers. Neither does the lovely An Encore for Michala, sent along with the Sonatina. It includes a segment in which she again hums the melody accompanied by her own playing. Petri has recorded both of the Jacobs works before, the first with her mother in 1987 and the later in 1993 with Lars Hannibal on guitar (both RCA). I suspect the latter was written for Hanne’s harpsichord, but I actually like the guitar a bit better in this gentle work. There is no denying, though, that Petri has gotten better, in the intervening years, at vocalizing and playing while maintaining the core tone of the instrument. I also like the softer ictus and longer ring of Hanne Petri’s instrument in the Sonatina, though if pressed, I have to say that Esfahani is the more imaginative partner and Petri’s approach has matured, most telling in the Menuetto.
The remaining two works both have a connection to friend and student Elisabet Selin. Axel Borup-Jørgensen was Selin’s father and the Fantasia, op. 75 (1975, rev. 1988) was written for her and Petri to perform. In fact, Selin recorded the work in 1988 for Danish Radio, and that recording appeared on OUR Recording’s early 2014 release of all of the Danish composer’s works for recorder (Fanfare 37:5). Her reading, with mother Ingrid Myrhøj, underlines the fantasy, the lyric elements of the score, and its connection to birdsong and nature. Petri and Esfahani emphasize the modernity, and the silences between the bright, spiky statements of the sopranino recorder and its dialog with the harpsichord. Both illuminate this fascinating work.
The other piece, and the newest (2014), was commissioned by Elisabet Selin from English composer Daniel Kidane specifically for Petri and Esfahani. Titled Tourbillon, it is inspired by the device added to mechanical escapements to make the watch more accurate by countering the effects of gravity. The work is, as the composer describes it, “intricate and virtuosic” and meant to suggest an attempt to escape structural gravity. The word means whirlwind in French, and certainly that is an apt description of parts of it. It is a challenging work for performers and listener.
I’ve gone on at some length without referring, except in passing, to the performances themselves. Perhaps that is because it goes without saying that anything this superstar pairing puts its hands to will be extraordinary. They are favored by state-of-the-art engineering, recorded in DXD ultra-high resolution in a supportive acoustic. The result is beautifully clear, present sound in both layers. The booklet is quite attractive, and, an error or two aside, the notes informative, though not, perhaps, to the same degree as the earlier Corelli and Borup-Jørgensen releases. One small annoyance: There is not enough spacing between works. A few more seconds would have been much appreciated.
Recommended? Without a doubt! It is a wonderful program, imaginatively presented. I just hope that Esfahani’s exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon will not preclude further silver-disc meetings of this dynamic duo. Ronald E. Grames March 2015