Many centuries ago recorders were commonplace. To this day, they retain a strong association with early music. Come the late 18th century, once the classical era was in full swing, recorders fell from favour, replaced by more powerful woodwind instruments, which have proved more ‘successful’ in the long run. My own anecdotal evidence suggests interest in the recorder is returning. The historically informed performance movement has undoubtedly played a huge role. Not only did it revive interest in older music, it kick-started a surge in top-level training for early music practitioners. Still, even with a healthy crop of instrumentalists looking for exciting things to do, the very sound of the recorder is still audible short-hand for the Renaissance and Baroque eras. We’ve got a centuries-long dearth of repertoire to thank for that.
Mechanically speaking, recorders are unfettered by the intricate keywork of modern woodwinds. Such developments have undoubtedly bolstered the power and security of those instruments, but I’ve always felt the silvery latticework on concert flutes and modern reeds also exerts an arbitrating force. The relationship between a recorder and its player feels a little more direct – more honest, in a manner of speaking. It’s impossible to deny that, judged alongside today’s orchestral stalwarts, recorders are mechanically primitive by comparison. But that primitivism results in a beautiful and almost palpable closeness, which is undoubtedly the key to their charm.
The recorder occupies a tricky space when it comes to contemporary music. A composer might not want to encourage the almost inevitable association with Baroque and Renaissance music. On the other hand, there’s only so far you can push a recorder in new directions before it sounds nauseatingly overstretched. This is particularly true if you pair it with more powerful modern instruments, where an unhelpful battle for equilibrium can ensue. The balance has to be just right. Aztec Dances, the new CD from Jill Kemp and Aleksander Szram, is testament to the truth in all this. One half of the disc contains music that respects the recorder, while the music on the other half seems determined to do quite the opposite.
The recording opens with its eponymous track, in which composer Edward Gregson riffles through an old box of clichés looking for cheap, one-dimensional evocations of Aztec culture and vague, wishy-washy attempts at ritual and mysticism. The recorder acts as a stand-in for ancient flutes. In fact, a version of the piece was made for modern flute as well. Perhaps Gregson would rather have written for flutes all along. His writing and styling leans that way far too much. The recorder might be a similar instrument, but it’s certainly not the same.
As a result, everything feels a bit forced. Kemp is backed into a corner, required to inhabit the idioms of instruments other than her own, regrettably straining to produce a clear tone over the more dominating piano. There’s no other option. That’s just how the piece is written. For no good reason the finale swerves from the Mexican influence that permeates the rest of the work and settles instead on a more Russian flavour. The Sacrificial Dance, both in its title and its content, never strays far from the obvious influence of Stravinsky, sitting awkwardly next to the previous evocations.
Gregory Rose’s Garden of the Gods is a better piece, but also has problems integrating the recorder and piano. Too often Kemp’s lines sit indifferently on top of Szram’s piano textures. It becomes a bit irritating from time to time. Rose could easily mitigate the problem by giving the recorder lines more room. As it is, they’re crammed with unnecessary notes, which add nothing to the expressive arc or texture of the piece. In fact, I’d say they have a detractive effect, especially in the penultimate movement, The Panathenaic Way.
The refrain in the fourth movement, Giants and Tritons, exemplifies the dangers of mixing modern and early instruments. It’s certainly memorable and stands out, which is what you want a refrain to do, but also feels impotent. A clarinet, a horn or a string instrument would match the strength of the piano chords more effectively here, even with the recorder playing in its highest and most cutting register.
Interestingly, these niggles dissipate in the final movement, Celebration, especially as Kemp switches from treble to sopranino. Suddenly the music is unfussy, speaking with a clearer voice. I would have preferred this kind of clarity in the preceding six movements, which simply feel a little over-composed.
Any of my gripes with the first two works pale into insignificance next to the disc’s centrepiece. To be fair, David Bedford’s Kemptown Races suffers from questionable programming. Why is it included here? I can detect no meaningful relationship with the other works on this release. If you’re a fan of novelty music you might be more forgiving. As it happens, I have no problem with novelty pieces per se; they have their place and they can be quite fun. But they can also be tacky, especially if they try and straddle the boundary between novelty and seriousness. I really can’t tell if that’s what Bedford tried to achieve with Kemptown Races, but his use of a pun in the title and his decision to base the entire work on Camptown Races, presumably for the sole reason that it made the pun possible, doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.
Bedford’s offering is a set of variations, very much cast in a tried-and-tested, almost vaudeville mould. Most of the music is overbearingly twee, the kind of thing that raises a quiet titter at a village fete while people concentrate on handing round cakes. It’s pleasant, but entirely predictable and even slightly cocky. Is the composer’s saying ‘look what I can do! Aren’t I clever’? Perhaps I’m being unfair. In any case, the only way to judge the work is by its ability to live up to some of the most overdone clichés. It’s not unlike a school composition exercise in that regard. Kemptown Races sticks out for all the wrong reasons. I was glad when it was over and I don’t intend to listen to it again.
The second half of the recording is completely different. The pieces here rely less on traditional melody-and-accompaniment construction. They also make more interesting use of the recorder, which is what I was hoping for!
George King’s Dance Suite manages to forge stylistic synthesis fantastically. King takes various dance styles drawn from his own experience as a musician. This isn’t musical tourism in the manner of Gregson’s earlier effort, but highly informed compositional craft. More importantly, King takes a considered approach to balancing the recorder and the piano. Both instruments stand on equal footing, which means reining-in the keyboard. That’s not to say the piano is relegated or subdued; King just writes his music well. Nor does Szram feel the need to take a back seat. Reacting to the sensitive position King assigns him, his playing loses none of its verve, allowing a zesty spirit to take the place of more straightforward power. This kind of innate musicality will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Szram’s brand of pianism.
The intricate recorder writing draws on timbres unique to the instrument, rather than attempting to sound like a knock-off version of something else. Most movements contain genuine drama, which is derived from the ritual like structures of the dance tropes that inspired the music, replete with their rhythmic rigour and steadfast reliance on repetition. None of those tropes is overdone. They’ve all been honed to form an interesting, complete set. Minuet, for instance, might be dripping with Romantic indulgence in the hands of a lesser composer. Not so here, where a nod toward tradition remains just that – a nod. Each movement draws on real practical knowledge and refined artistry. I can’t think of anywhere else where the influence of dub, bebop, 19th century Vienna and jigs sit comfortably together. Dance Suite represents a fascinating combination of approaches to music-making.
If King’s work is an improvement on Gregson’s in its ability to utilise stylistic reference, Daryl Runswick’s Cycles, which closes the recording, bests Rose’s Garden of the Gods in its use of (metaphorical) breathing space. This is music superbly at ease with itself. I imagine it sounding superbly atmospheric, and not at all soupy, in a highly reverberant acoustic. As it is, the recording’s a little on the dry side, but the piece is no less delightful to hear. Apparently Runswick has drawn on multiple influences, creating a unique personal style. While not exactly revolutionary, there’s a refreshing frankness to that style, which invites attention. The interplay between recorder and piano is audibly very simple, but interpretatively complex – it’s what’s missing that counts. The music has a haunting quality that I find irresistible.
The significant role of improvisation makes it difficult to know where Runswick’s direct input ends and the performers’ creative decisions begin to steer the music towards success. But that’s the very nature of improvisation. A well-constructed framework, which is what Runswick provides here, allows for multiple sources of input without the audience being any the wiser.
As an aside, Andrew Mayes’ programme notes include a curious comment about Cycles. He writes: ‘The recorder too is often required to make sounds that it would not have made in its Renaissance heyday: but despite these modernist aspects, melody and lyricism are the dominant traits of the piece’. I struggle to unpick exactly what he means by that, beyond a vague and unhelpful sideswipe at music he sees as under-referencing the most traditional compositional methods. Such a comment demonstrates perfectly the battle recorder players face in having their instruments taken seriously as anything other than tools for historical performance.
I don’t want to suggest that the recorder, in order to be taken seriously as an instrument, has to be subjected to all kinds of ground-breaking experimentation. Nor do I want to suggest that more traditional approaches to composition do it a disservice. It happens to be that the most forgettable or irritating moments on this recording all rely on a very traditional conception of melody and accompaniment. But that’s nothing more than coincidence. What this CD demonstrates is how fabulous the recorder can be when respected for what it is (and not necessarily what it was). Critics and performers shouldn’t require composers to reference the recorder’s ‘heyday’, as if to prove they’ve done their history homework. To expect such a thing is to reduce the instrument itself to a historical novelty. We don’t expect it in oboe or cello music, so why should we expect it of recorder music? Likewise, composers shouldn’t insist that performers push the recorder in the same direction as more mechanically advanced woodwinds. It’s not a concert flute and shouldn’t be treated like one. The recorder has a unique charm and a distinctive voice. It might have less dynamic and experimental range than some of its modern cousins, and it might suffer from being associated with early music most of the time, but the recorder has something exciting and fresh to offer composers, performers and audiences alike.
Incidentally, the two pieces I consider the most successful here were written by musicians with notable backgrounds in jazz – composers who, I assume, aren’t saddled with the catalogue of tradition-steeped hang-ups I’ve been discussing.
As a whole, I find Aztec Dances an inconsistent experience. I get the impression it was produced in a hurry. There are design errors on the sleeve and some of the tracks carry CD text bearing the details of a completely different recording session (oops). However, that’s not to say the disc is without merit or its moments of enjoyment. I almost certainly would never have heard the Runswick or King pieces without it, and for that I’m very grateful.
In many ways Aztec Dances is a perfect recording for composers, for whom it can act as a guide of what to do and what not to do. The high quality playing of Kemp and Szram is a delight, and proof that any faults lie with the pieces and not with the performers. Most of all, the CD has reminded me how much of a tricky business composing for the recorder can be. But I’m no less a fan than I was before. In fact, if anything, I have fresh determination to see it treated with the respect and admiration it deserves. I can also add Jill Kemp to my list of performers I simply have to see live.
Aztec Dances is available on the Prima Facie label.