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Fanfare USA (US) "Any serious collector of contemporary concertos would be foolish to pass this one up"!

April 4, 2019

David DeBoor Canfield, Fanfare USA

Michala Petri has been playing recorder for all but the first two of her 61 years, and has had about the most distinguished career I suppose it is possible to have short of playing an instrument such as piano or violin that possesses a huge repertory. Her recording career extends well back into the LP era, and she has been presented on major labels such as Philips and RCA. Petri has not been content with the relatively limited concerto repertory for her instrument and has commissioned, performed, and recorded dozens of works from major composers all over the globe. James Altena and Raymond Tuttle, for instance, both reviewed a disc of English recorder concertos in 36:1, and there are at least 90 other reviews of her playing to be found in the Fanfare archive.
This Danish artist has turned to four American composers for the present recital, three of whom have written music I’ve known and loved for years. Only the fourth, Sean Hickey, is a new discovery for me, and an important one. The disc opens with Prelude, Habanera, and Perpetual Motion, a recorder concerto by Roberto Sierra, a composer who is increasingly becoming one of my favorite living composers. The work began its life originally in a version for recorder and guitar, a combination particularly favored by Petri. In fitting the work in its present orchestral garb, the composer has retained a quasi-guitar feeling through significant use of pizzicato in the strings and certain effects in the percussion. Its light scoring allows the recorder to shine in prominence throughout the work. The opening movement calls for many melismas, and is followed by a dark and mysterious habanera that takes the recorder up into the piccolo range on occasion. I had rather forgotten that the instrument (in its soprano family member) could play that high. The last movement features a constant stream of notes from both soloist and ensemble structured into groups of 3+3+2, a grouping commonly found in Latin American music. Throughout the work, Sierra’s imaginative sonorities and harmonies are on full display, and his writing always carries the listener inexorably forward to an exciting conclusion. Along the way, some extremely quick double-tonguing is demanded from the soloist.
The harmonic language of Steven Stucky in his recorder concerto, Etudes, is similar to that of Sierra, but the two pieces do not at all resemble each other on textural or structural grounds. The Stucky work is conceived in rather improvisatory fashion, eschewing much in the way of formal structure. It also features fairly wide use of special effects such as pitch bends, flutter tongue, mutes (in the orchestral instruments: I doubt it is possible to mute a recorder), and the like. Given the pitch bends, the work bears a good bit of resemblance to music I’ve heard (and written) for Native American flute, where such things are the norm rather than the exception. These also serve to give the piece a haunting quality that is usually absent from most recorder works. The Concerto concludes with a frenetic movement, featuring irregular sequences of notes from both solo instrument and ensemble, punctuated by interjections from instruments such as xylophone and temple blocks. This may be my favorite movement on the disc, and is certainly one of the most intricate and tricky to execute.
Anthony Newman’s Concerto eschews all but five instruments in the ensemble, as he restricts the accompanimental forces to a harpsichord (played by the composer) and string quartet. Readers with good memories will recall my very positive reviews of this composer’s (not quite) complete works, and subsets thereof (including a set of his Symphonies) in several reviews. The present work lives up to the high standard he demands of himself, and this ebullient and bubbly work is sheer delight from beginning to end. Newman has carved out his own niche in the American music scene, in that no one else is writing (and likely could write) music like this. He is, in short, the sui generis neo-Baroque composer of our time, and this work is a classic example of this style. Its four movements include “Toccata,” a note-infused busy exercise, “Devil’s Dance,” a tongue-in-cheek bouncy affair, “Lament,” in which Newman bridles his jocularity in favor of a simple and direct soulful song, and the zany “Furie.”
As I mentioned earlier, Sean Hickey is the new discovery for me on the present CD. His music is colorful, extremely well-orchestrated, and full of imagination and life. His A Pacifying Weapon, a substantial (half-hour) concerto for recorder and ensemble of winds, percussion, and harp, is the first combination of such forces I can recall encountering. Because this very performance has been reviewed in previous issues of Fanfare by Ronald Grames, Robert Carl, and Raymond Tuttle, all in 41:1, and by Colin Clarke (twice: also in 42:5), I need not re-invent a wheel that has so capably been created and treated (why is one of those words three syllables and the other only two?) by my colleagues. Suffice it to say that Hickey does an exceedingly good job in keeping forces that could easily overpower a recorder from doing so, and writing a work for a solo instrument that sounds like none other I’ve heard. I was greatly impressed by it and will be on the lookout for more music by this Detroit-born composer.
Michala Petri’s playing on this recital gives ample evidence why she is nonpareil in the recorder world. I simply cannot imagine these works any better performed. If there is another recorder player out there that could even match her pitch and tonguing accuracy, her musical expressiveness, and her ability to vary the very timbre of her instrument, in fact, I’m unaware of whom that might be. Her playing is superbly supported by the four different ensembles utilized in this concert. Any serious collector of contemporary concertos would be foolish to pass this one up.