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CD Review

Moonchild's Dream

Modern Music for Recorder

  • Thomas Koppel: Moonchild's Dream
  • Vagn Holmboe: Concerto for Recorder, String Orchestra, Celesta & Vibraphone, Op. 122
  • Gary Kulesha: Concerto for Recorder & Small Orchestra
  • Asger Lund Christiansen: Dance Suite, Op. 29
  • Malcolm Arnold: Concerto for Recorder & Orchestra, Op. 133
English Chamber Orchestra/Okko Kamu
Michala Petri, recorder
RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-62543-2 DDD 77:53
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Your reaction to this disc might very likely depend on how well you like the sound of the recorder and on the size of the largest dose you can stand. This is All-Playing! All-Singing! All-Recorder! Fortunately, Petri commands several colors, but, then, I'm a fan of the instrument, having driven my parents crazy when I caught the Renaissance bug in high school and learned to play my very own soprano instrument.

As a rank amateur, I marvel not only at Petri's dexterity, her seamless trips back and forth across the instrument's breaks, her control over dynamics and the instrument's tone, but also her ability to keep the damn thing in tune, a matter of superb breath control and something I could never manage.

The works are a mixed bag. Thomas Koppel, like Danny Elfman, started out in rock and moved into film and theater. He based his 19-minute, one-movement concerto on the image of a little girl growing up in the Copenhagen slums (BMG has even provided his own poem of the same title). The work seems associated with visual images known to the composer and which the general listener lacks. Plenty happens in the concerto, but arbitrarily. Much of it is post-Impressionist reverie, punctuated by fleet-footed sections, way too brief. Koppel knows orchestration and can certainly write a tune and capture interest, but he has trouble with abstract construction over the long haul. If I were watching a documentary to this music, I wouldn't mind as much. Petri sings sweetly, however, and at times gets the music to move us.

Ever since I read Robert Layton's essay in Simpson's classic Penguin book on the symphony, I've been eager to hear Vagn Holmboe's music. Bis is turning out what seems to be a series of his symphonies as well as other works, and Petri apparently has become an advocate for this composer (she has also recorded his recorder trio). Most critics regard Holmboe as Nielsen's protégé, but, for me, only because both men wrote wonderfsymphonies. I find no real kinship of idiom or constructive method. Where Nielsen profoundly extends late 19th-century symphonic techniques, Holmboe gives the impression of skipping the 19th century entirely. He shares more with the neo-classicism of Hindemith.

I've never heard a "light" piece from Holmboe, although I sincerely hope he has them. Even with a recorder concerto, he confounds expectations and, in effect, gives the equivalent of the Dvořák violin concerto. There are high spirits, to be sure, but nothing is tossed off. He challenges the soloist in all three movements. The first plays around two short motifs heard in succession at opening bars: an odd run up the octave and 16ths in half-steps and thirds. Holmboe shakes one variant after another out of his sleeve, like a stage magician picking a field of carnations from the air – a movement in almost continuous development which forces the executant to shape its architecture. The second movement begins in wisps of themes which gradually coalesce around the recorder soloist, who must keep the listener's attention with very little ornament and with a long singing line. The last movement emphasizes virtuosity (as if the others didn't!). The soloist sends off taradiddles in its highest register. The composer emphasizes contrapuntal imitation (until now, the main use of the counterpoint has been to separate strings, celeste, vibraphone, and recorder, with each group getting its own material), which reaches its climax in the cadenza. Here, Petri engages in imitation with herself, humming and playing at the same time. Yet the recorder's tone and intonation remain rock-solid. A winning piece and performance.

I first heard of Canadian composer Gary Kulesha on this list and am happy this CD has given me the opportunity to sample. Like the Holmboe, this is no light romp. Its mood is mostly dark. I can't offhand name a even flute concerto this sombre. Even the last movement, while quick, doesn't blow off tension, but turns it up. On the other hand, working against type yields a great payoff. Kulesha provides the recorder with a convincing dramatic role. Analysis is secondary to the music itself, more experimental than Holmboe's, but still nothing really shocking here. If you can handle Bartók, this will slide down easy. Petri gets to hum and play in the movement's cadenza, although it's a lock-step chorale, rather than Holmboe's contrapuntal duet. Kulesha is a real poet. I look forward to more work.

Christiansen's Dance Suite reminds me of composers like Wiren and Larsson (with traces of Nielsen's flute concerto). This, however, is light music with no apologies. The idiom is neoclassic, in the same way Larsson's set of 12 concertinos is. The movements are short and generally snappy, with an almost English-pastoral slow movement. The liner notes claim there's a Danish folk influence – entirely possible, since I don't know anything about Danish folk song. It does seem to me sublimated into a cosmopolitan idiom, however.

Malcolm Arnold, a past master of musical bonbons, has also written Petri a Fantasy for solo recorder, and she has recorded this as well. The concerto is expertly written, with a lot of sliding back and forth between two very distantly-related keys – an Arnoldian fingerprint. The craft of the piece is enormous and deceptively simple. Arnold is one of those "art to hide art" composers. The first movement plays elegant games of elision with sonata form. The second is a passacaglia on a very complex ground and yet sounds like a simple, heart-felt song. The final-movement gigue, while getting Petri to move her fingers fairly quickly, provides the more difficult (and subtle) task of not allowing her to breathe – or if she does, I can't tell when she does it. Elegantly written, elegantly played.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz