Recorders and piano leap into the 20th century with attractive, interesting English music

Bernard Wells (recorders) and Thomas Nikora (piano)

Antony Hopkins: Suite for Descant Recorder and Pianoforte
Colin Hand: Plaint for Tenor Recorder and Piano
Edmund Rubbra: Meditazioni sopra “Cours Désolés”, Op.67
John Golland: New World Dances for Recorder and Piano, Op.62
Herbert Murrill: Suite (Largo, Presto, Recitative, Finale)
Geoffrey Poole: Skally Skarekrow’s Whistling Book
Lennox Berkeley: Sonatina for Treble Recorder and Pianoforte

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 29 July 2015, 12.15pm

This was an unusual concert.  Recorders play early music, right?  The music played this time was not early or baroque, but contemporary. And it was written for recorders and piano.  All the works were by twentieth century English composers.  I suppose that only the names Edmund Rubbra and Lennox Berkeley would be familiar.

Antony Hopkins (not the actor) was the first of seven such composers featured.  His suite of four short pieces was delightful, and the instruments were well balanced.  A very charming allegretto quasi pastorale was followed by a sprightly scherzo, after which came canon andante tranquillo: lyrical and meditative.  The jig vivace finale had plenty of fast finger-work for both players and was a truly lively jig that one could imagine dancers performing.

After this, Bernard Wells spoke about the famous Carl Dolmetsch (1911-1997), whose father revived the recorder and other early instruments almost single-handedly in England beginning in the late nineteenth-century.  Carl performed throughout his long life, and was the reason for the  composers writing these works.

The character of Colin Hand’s short work was appropriate to its title, while Edmund Rubbra’s piece, with its mixture of Italian and French in the title (Wikipedia gives it entirely in French), was played on the treble recorder.  A range of moods and dynamics were revealed.  Here, there was a problem, later explained and apologised for by Bernard Wells.  It seems that the very breathy, even harsh tone in louder passages that spoilt the music at times was caused by a build-up of condensation in the instrument.  The passing of his absorbent cloth through the instrument did not really fix the matter.  I always think of the treble as the most mellow and melodic of the family; not today.

Wells explained that the treble recorder he was playing was of a new design, the bore being flared, not straight like the regular recorder.  This had been developed for playing modern music, not for baroque music.  It has a bigger range and a few keys to assist in playing lower notes.

The descant instrument returned with John Golland’s Suite of dances.  The ‘Ragtime Allegro’ opening movement was good fun, Nikora varying the dynamics agreeably.  The composer died in 1993 (born 1942), one of several of the composers featured who died rather prematurely.  His second movement, ‘Blues Lazily’, on treble recorder, demonstrated some of the more unexpected moods of which the instrument is capable.  Back to the descant for ‘Bossa Nova Vivo’, its tricky tempi and finger clicks from both musicians adding to the enjoyment.

Interposed but not printed in the programme was an item by Herbert Murrill (1909-1952): a suite of well-contrasted movements.  The Recitativo employed the lower register of the instrument, and the quick finale rounding off an enjoyable work.

The works by Geoffrey Poole and Berkeley had the recorder amplified by a small speaker; I had not noticed it in use earlier in the concert.  Wells explained that it was used to obtain a better balance with the piano.  ‘Clouds’, Poole’s first movement was in a minor key, and of a dreamy nature.  ‘Spring Breezes’ featured appropriate flutterings, while ‘Sunshine’ was smooth with a rippling accompaniment.  Finally, ‘Hailstones’ were darting here and there in the final movement, sometimes heavily, sometimes lightly.  The passing of themes and effects between the two instruments was most appealing. There was a jolly ending.  Again, Wells apologised for the instrument.

Berkeley’s sonatina again had the treble recorder with a very ‘chuffy’ tone.  The middle movement (adagio) was very calm, slowly building in tension and volume, then dying, while the allegro moderato final movement was a racy romp, but obviously tricky to play.

I did wonder whether the use of the mike should have enabled playing more softly to overcome the problems.  Of course, the mike made the harsh sound worse than it would have been otherwise.

Given the recorders’ relatively small range, it is surprising what varied music these composers wrote for the instruments.  Bernard Wells is an accomplished recorder of long standing, and Thomas Nikora proved a worthy accompanist, producing delightful effects on the piano.