Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Shine and Shade: English 20th Century Recorder Music

Norman Fulton (1909-1980) Scottish Suite (1954) Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) Meditation sopra Coeur’s Desoles York Bowen (1884-1961) Sonata Op.121 Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) Sonatina Edward Gregson (b.1945) Three Matisse Impressions Stephen Dodgson (b.1924) Shine and Shade Donald Swann (1923-1994) Rhapsody from Within
Piers Adams (recorder) Julian Rhodes (piano)
RED PRIEST CDs RP010 [69:47]

I will hold my hand up straight away. The recorder is not one of my favourite instruments. I guess that this antipathy goes back to my primary-school days when I was struggling to play ‘Greensleeves’ on this instrument. I failed. The sounds generated were horrendous. I then took up the piano and had a considerably better (but by no means great) success. Furthermore I instinctively feel that most pieces written for the recorder could be played just as well (or even more effectively) on the flute or oboe. Having shrived my soul on that issue, I have to state that the present CD is excellent.  If I imagined that I love the sound of the recorder, I can believe that this is one of the best releases for that instrument I have heard. From the excellence of the playing through to the imaginative and rare repertoire it impresses me.  I am not sure, but I would fancy that most of these works are receiving their first recordings. However, bear in mind the disc was recorded in 1993 – so some of these tracks may have appeared elsewhere. I do not know.  

The programme opens with Norman Fulton’s beautiful Scottish Suite.  There are five movements to this work, most of which takes on a largely traditional dance-suite form – ‘Prelude’, ‘Air’, ‘Musette’, ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Reel;. The jaunty ‘Prelude’ gets the music going with swagger. The wistful ‘Air’ suggests some ‘lonely glen on a misty morning’. The ‘Musette’ is a little more ‘international’ in its mood: complex and technically difficult. The exception to dance movements is the ‘Nocturne’: this is the heart of the work. It is a deeply felt piece that moves away from any notion of ‘tartanry’ into an almost atonal mood.  The liner notes allude to the ‘solitary loneliness of the Scottish highlands and islands’: it is a perfect allusion. Conversely, the spirit of Burns and Scott is present in the final ‘Reel’ – this a rollicking piece that sits somewhere between sailors on ships and the ceilidh. Finally, more investigation needs to be done into the life and works of Norman Fulton. He appears to have been largely ignored by performers and writers.

I find Edmund Rubbra’s Meditazione Sopra Coeurs Désolés a little too dry and dusty. However, I imagine that many folk will enjoy this timeless tune with its nod to the fifteenth century. The piece is in the form of a set of well constructed variations. 

The principal work on this CD is the Sonata Op.121 by York Bowen.  It was composed in 1946 and was given its premiere two years later by Arnold Dolmetsch.  I guess that this work epitomises my view that most works for the recorder would be better for the flute. On the one hand, this highly charged work has a demanding romantic piano part. Against this is counterpointed the ‘old-world’ sound of the recorder. To me, it just does not quite work. However, there is no doubt that Bowen was a master of his craft and has written effectively for both instruments: it is their combination and interaction that concerns me. Yet this is clearly an important part of the recorder repertoire and undoubtedly earns it place in this recital.

Contrariwise, the Sonatina by Lennox Berkeley is a perfect balance between recorder and piano. This is a neo-classical (or is it neo-baroque?) work that has little in the way ‘romance’. The liner notes point out that Berkeley’s style owed little to the English pastoral tradition. This Sonatina makes use of angular melodies, acerbic harmonies and restless figurations for both recorder and piano.  This ‘Spartan’ effect is seen at its most depressing in the middle ‘adagio’  There is a little easing of the tension in the concluding ‘allegro moderato’ in fact, I detected a nod towards a hornpipe! Possibly the most satisfactory work on this disc, even if it is not immediately approachable or user-friendly. It is a miniature masterpiece.

Three Matisse Sketches by Edward Gregson is a response to three paintings by the French master –‘Pastoral’, ‘Luxe, Clame et Volupte’ and ‘The Dance’.  The sound world of these numbers could be described as impressionist rather than descriptive however, it is not necessary to see the paintings in order to enjoy the music. The stylistic balance is good with nods to Debussy. This is by far the most ‘modern’ piece on this CD.

Stephen Dodgson’s Shine and Shade (the title track) was written for the recorderist Richard Harvey in 1976. The mood of this piece (for some reason) reminded me of Beethoven’s ‘Happy-Sad’ bagatelle (WoO54).  However, Dodgson makes subtle use of a wide palette of musical devices, such as blues, jazz and ‘retro’ classicism. This lovely work combines reflection with humour. A long, complex work that is entertaining and moving.

It is nice to see a CD featuring the work of Donald Swann. More often than not, he is considered in the same breath as his writing partner Michael Flanders. They are recalled for their humorous songs such as ‘The Hippopotamus’, ‘The Gasman Cometh’ and ‘Have some Madeira, M’dear’. However, Swann always regarded himself as ‘striving for recognition’ as a classical composer. The present Rhapsody from Within was written for Arnold Dolmetsch and the harpsichordist Joseph Saxby to celebrate 50 years of their partnership. The liner notes omit to state that the work was given its first performance at the Wigmore Hall on 2 April 1982 by the dedicatees.
The present recording successfully uses the piano in lieu of the harpsichord. I agree with the anonymous reviewer in the Jun 1982 edition of Recorder & Music that this work is ideally suited to this scoring.
Rhapsody from Within is in three well-balanced movements – Part one: Molto movimento, Part two: Rhapsodico and Part three: Ritmoco. Do not try to unpack all the musical nods and winks. I guess that Francis Poulenc is the name that springs to mind as a possible stylistic model. However, Saint-Saens, Mendelssohn and Sullivan are never far away. Yet, this is not a pastiche or a parody: Donald Swann has composed a very attractive work that is well written, ideal for the present musical combination and has instant appeal. I think that this recording will ensure that it is firmly established in the recorder player’s repertoire: I believe is the only one currently available. This is my favourite work on this CD.

I noted my general lack of enthusiasm for the recorder at the start of this review. In spite of this fussy little prejudice of mine, I have to reinforce my contrary opinion that this is actually a stunning disc. The playing is first class –from both performers, the sound quality is excellent and the liner notes are extremely helpful, if not comprehensive. Composer dates would have been helpful. Additionally, I would have enjoyed reading Donald Swann’s own programme note for Rhapsody from Within (I may post it on my blog later). However, the most important aspect of this CD from Red Priest (too much Sandeman’s Port?) is the wide-ranging repertoire. It is an interesting and fundamentally well-balanced programme that makes an ideal recital. It was a pleasure and an honour to review this disc.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.


Eric Sprigg said...

I only learned that Vivaldi was known as the Red Priest (il Prete Rosso - from his red hair) from a television film just a week or so ago on. I hadn't known about Sandeman's but maybe that was Vivaldi's favourite tipple :-)

However, more I just wanted to take this chance, as one of the silent majority, to say how much I enjoy reading your blog. Thanks!

John France said...

Thanks for that, Eric!!!!