Wednesday 18 March 2020

Lyrical contemporary: record producer Michael Fine's recent works for solo wind instruments and string quartet

Michael Fine Five for Five: Quintets for winds and string quartet; Fei Xie (bassoon), Robert Walters (cor anglais), Anton Rist (clarinet), Xiaodi Liu (oboe), Alice K. Dade (flute), Scott Yoo (violin), Erik Arvinder (violin), Maurycy Banaszek (viola), Jonah Kim (cello); Evidence Classics
Michael Fine Five for Five: Quintets for winds and string quartet; Fei Xie (bassoon), Robert Walters (cor anglais), Anton Rist (clarinet), Xiaodi Liu (oboe), Alice K. Dade (flute), Scott Yoo (violin), Erik Arvinder (violin), Maurycy Banaszek (viola), Jonah Kim (cello); Evidence Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 March 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Record producer Michael Fine reveals another side to himself in these five lyrical quintets for wind and strings

Michael Fine is perhaps best known as a recording producer, having worked with many major classical labels in the last thirty or so years, but he has another side. On this disc, Five of Five, from Evidence Classics we hear a selection of Fine's recent chamber music compositions (all written since 2013). All are quintets for wind instrument plus strings, with works for bassoon, cor anglais, clarinet, oboe and flute, performed by Fei Xie (bassoon), Robert Walters (cor anglais), Anton Rist (clarinet), Xiaodi Liu (oboe), Alice K. Dade (flute), Scott Yoo (violin), Erik Arvinder (violin), Maurycy Banaszek (viola) and Jonah Kim (cello).

We start with the Quintet for Bassoon and Strings, written in 2017 for the bassoonist on the recording, Fei Xie, principal bassoon with the Minnesota Orchestra. The work is in three movements, 'Allegro scherzando', 'Largo', 'Allegro', the traditional fast-slow-fast. It opens with an extremely perky bassoon part, which sounds as if Fine has been listening to lots of Poulenc, this is set against quite a contrapuntal string texture and this continues in the lyrical slow movement where the plaintive bassoon supported by contrapuntal strings. Throughout the disc, it was noticeable that Fine liked to write plenty of moving lines, textures often being formed from four or five contrapuntal lines. Harmonies are tonal, though never moving into pastiche, always with a distinctiveness to the harmony. The finale is busy yet serious.

What follows is a single movement work for cor anglais and strings, Elegy for ... written in 2016. It is a lyrical yet elegiac work, setting Robert Walter's fine cor anglais playing against moving string textures.

The Quintet for Clarinet and Strings was written in 2015, and was premiered at Fine's home on his 65th birthday. A clarinettist himself, Fine wrote the solo clarinet to play himself though on this disc it is performed by Anton Rist.  In three movements, the first is a lyrical Andante, giving us hints of jazz and 20th century American music, with an intense slow movement, and bluesy, jazzy finale with a mini-cadenza for the clarinet.

Fine's Quintet for Oboe and String Quartet also dates from 2015. The opening is surprisingly conventional sounding, but there are plenty of interesting conversations between the solo wind instrument and the strings. The slow movement, 'Larghetto', as lovely slow lyrical lines, whilst the lively finale, 'Moderato', gives some interesting twists to the oboe line.

The final work on the disc is the most recent, the 2018 Quintet for Flute and Quartet and it was written for the flautist on this disc, Alice K Dade. In four movements, the first 'Moderato' seems to betray a French neo-classical influence with the flute flowing over a busy string textures. There are two slow movements, the first 'Andante piacevole' is quite free flowing and again neo-classical in feel, the second 'Adagio', is more contained with some lovely melodic writing for the flute. The work finishes with a lively finale, with the solo instrument in dialogue with the strings.

Fine clearly has a very definite voice, and the music on this disc all has a beautifully well-made quality, as you would expect from someone with an ear honed by years of being a record producer. His style, at least from the works on this disc, ploughs his own distinctive furrow and I found his liking for contrapuntal textures very fascinating. At times, I found the emotional temperature of the music somewhat low, but it is never less than admirable. Fine benefits from strong performances from his players; the recording was made following performances at Festival Mozaic in San Luis Obispo with Festival Musicians. It is a shame that the disc could not have included a movement just for the strings, because all five works tend to spotlight the wind playing, and the four fine string players are somewhat in the background.

Michael Fine (born 1950) - Quintet for Bassoon and Strings (2017)
Michael Fine - Elegy for ... (2016)
Michael Fine - Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet (2015)
Michael Fine - Quintet for Oboe and String Quartet (2015)
Michael Fine - Quintet for Flute and String Quartet (2018)
Fei Xie (bassoon)
Robert Walters (cor anglais)
Anton Rist (clarinet)
Xiaodi Liu (oboe)
Alice K. Dade (flute)
Scott Yoo (violin)
Erik Arvinder (violin)
Maurycy Banaszek (viola)
Jonah Kim (cello)
Recorded 4-6 August 2019, Harold J Miossi Cultural and Performing Arts Centre, Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo, California

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