Wednesday 8 May 2013

The English recorder revolution

That the recorder is so ubiquitous in modern life we owe mainly to one man, Carl Dolmetsch. The first acknowledged recorded virtuoso of the 20th century, he started to seek a contemporary repertoire for the instrument. This new disc, English Recorder Works, from young recorder virtuoso Jill Kemp with Aleksander Szram, piano, and the Browowski Quartet, explores this repertoire developed for the instrument in the latter half of the 20th century with works by Lennox Berkeley, Malcolm Arnold, Gordon Jacob, York Bowen and Edmund Rubbra.

Carl Dolmetsch (1911 - 1997) was the song of Arnold Dolmetsch (1858 - 1940), a major figure in the early music revival. Carl was involved in early music, but sought new music too. It was for him that Lennox Berkeley (1903 - 1989) wrote his Sonatina for treble recorder and piano which was included in Dolmetsch's 1939 recital at the Wigmore Hall. In three movements, the work starts in dramatic and anxious manner. There is something fascinating yet oddly uncomfortable about the harmony in the first movement, with its complex, chromatic melody. The slower second movement has an equally chromatic, sinuous melody. It is clear that Berkeley was intent on writing serious, grown-up music for the instrument. Only in the finale do things relax to allow a jolly, perky conclusion.

Though written 14 years later, the Sonatina for treble recorder and piano, Opus 41 by Malcolm Arnold (1921 - 2006) seems to live in the same sound world as the Berkeley, especially its first movement with its troubled, chromatic melody. The middle movement is equally dark, and both composers seem determined that the instrument demonstrate its modern, serious capability. Again, only in the last movement do we get to relax. And I did start to wonder whether composers were trying a little bit too hard to modernise the instrument.

Whilst Arnold's Sonatina had been written for the recorder player Philip Rogers, it was Carl Dolmetsch who commissioned the Suite for treble recorder and string quartet from Gordon Jacob (1895 - 1984). The suite was premiered by Dolmetsch at the Wigmore Hall in 1958.

Jacob's Suite goes give the impression that the recorder goes better with strings than it does with piano. The suite is in seven movements. A lyrical, but restless Prelude leads to a delightful and very English, English Dance. The Lament is a long, serious movement, dramatic and rather meandering with a restless melody in the recorder. Things get delightfully exotic in the Burlesca all Rumba, before a Pavane which is pure English pastoral and rather lovely. A dark and dramatic string introduction leads to a composed Cadenza with string accompaniment. The final Tarantella is very high and very bright, a delight.

 Malcolm Arnold's Solitaire was written for a tobacco advert and arranged as a whistling tune (for John Amis), and for flute and piano. it is here recorded in its recorder and piano incarnation, and a complete charmer it is.

Carl Dolmetch commissioned York Bowen's (1884 - 1961) Sonata, op. 121 for recorder and piano in 1946. The work was premiered at the Wigmore Hall in 1947. Whilst the first two movements use the treble record, the final one uses the descant, the first time the instrument had been used in a modern context. Unlike the first three works on the disc, you sense that York Bowen was not trying too hard. His first two movements have a lovely relaxed, lyrical feel, with a glorious romantic melancholy melody in the second movement. The busy second movement his highly virtuosic but Kemp's playing charms us too.

Edmund Rubbra (1901 - 1986) seems to have been another composer who took a relaxed attitude to writing for the recorder. His Meditazioni sopra 'Coeurs Desoles' op. 67 is the first on the disc to evoke the recorder's early music past whilst at the same time being true to Rubbra's style. The work was written for Carl Dolmetsch for his 1949 recital at the Wigmore Hall and it based on a chanson by Josquin des Pres. It is a remarkably fine piece, it fits the recorder/piano combination well and, by not trying too hard, succeeds brilliantly.

The final work on the disc was also amongst Malcolm Arnold's last works. The Fantasy for recorder and string quartet was written for the Danish recorder virtuoso Michaela Petri in 1990. It is a five movement work which features Petri's rather distinctive ability to vocalise whilst playing the instrument. The opening Andante et mesto is austere and rather dramatic, followed by a perky Allegro with more than a hint of hornpipe about it. The Lento e mesto movement is the first to feature the soloist's vocalisation in a big way. This creates a curious, very edgy sort of atmosphere and, frankly, I found the effect rather difficult to listen to for any length of time. The Allegretto is a gently evocative movement and quite lovely whilst the concluding Vivace seemed to be utilising various different bird calls, and includes more of the vocalisation technique. If have to admit that my dislike of the sound made by the vocalisation technique, impressive though it might be technically, has rather coloured my view of this work.

Jill Kemp is technically strong in all these pieces and makes a fine advocate for them and she is well supported by Aleksander Szram and the Brodowski Quartet.

This is a fascinating disc, a window onto a concerted campaign to turn the recorder into an instrument with a worthy contemporary repertoire. I am not certain that every piece works, but Kemp is to be congratulated for allowing us to explore this repertoire and to judge for ourselves how English composers in the latter part of the 20th century came to grips with the recorder as a modern solo instrument.

English Recorder Works
Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) - Sonatina Op.13 (1939) [9:38]
Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) -  Sonatina Op.41 (1953) [7:39]
Gordon Jacob (1895-1984) - Suite for Recorder and String Quartet (1957) [20:28]
Malcolm Arnold - Solitaire (1956) [1:35]
York Bowen (1884-1961) - Sonata Op.121 (1946) [12:19]
Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) - Meditation sopra ‘Coeurs Désolés’ (1949) [5:47]
Malcolm Arnold - Fantasy for Recorder and String Quartet, Op.140 (1990) [13:46]
Jill Kemp (recorder)
Aleksander Szram (piano)
Brodowski Quartet
Rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 4-6 September 2010
MUSIC MEDIA MMC103 [70:58]

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