“An entire CD devoted to piccolo music,” I can hear you saying, “Please spare me!” Surely, for some people I suppose a dollop o’ piccolo would be enough (there’s a pun in there somewhere), but I found the attractive works and the assured playing of Natalie Schwaabe to sustain my interest through an entire CD’s worth of piccolo music. The sonata by Levente Gyöngyösi (b. 1975) is a delightful confabulation of snippets of clunking, clanging, and shrieking sounds, strung together so as to form a convincing whole. In fact, there are some really lovely lines that emanate, especially in the second movement of this 11-minute sonata by a contemporary Hungarian master. The entire range of the instrument is effectively utilized throughout this captivating work.
I will interrupt the discussion of the music to give a bit of biography of the piccoloist. Natalie Schwaabe was Tokyo-born, Hong Kong-raised, and London-trained, so she’s certainly gotten around, but eventually settled in Germany—appropriately, given her German name and (likely) genes. She became principal flutist with the Munich Symphony Orchestra, the Munich Radio Orchestra, and finally the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. During her tenure in these ensembles, she has worked with eminent conductors such as Rattle, Barenboim, Muti, Jansons, and Carlos Kleiber.
The two and a half piece by German composer Gert Wilden, Jr. (b. 1954) takes a radical turn from the playful sonata by Gyöngyösi. It begins much more in the lower gentle tessitura of the piccolo, a section replete with glissandos that resemble, perhaps, the cries of loons. A second section involves irregular syncopation in the piano over which the piccolo interjects brief spurts of air and eventually longer note-filled lines, before the work, written for Schwaabe, closes in similar fashion to its opening. Franco Donatoni’s NIDI consists of two pieces for solo piccolo. The opening of the first sounds very much like some exotic bird singing in the night with an almost tonal song. Gradually, the tempo increases, and the movement ends up in a fusillade of notes. The second piece continues with bird-like sounds, and I found both movements quite effective, even if at times a bit shrill due to Donatoni’s spending much time in the highest register of the instrument.
Mike Mower (b. 1958) candidly wrote of his Piccolo Sonata, “When I was commissioned to write a sonata for piccolo and piano in 2001, I have to admit I was less than enthusiastic about the idea at first.” His reticence was occasioned by the inherently shrill nature of the instrument, and the fact that the instrument seems to be the Rodney Dangerfield of the instrumental world (“I don’t get no respect!”). This reluctance has not affected the quality of his work one bit, as I find it one of the strongest works in the recital. Highly rhythmic and jazz-influenced, it is original from beginning to end, and employs percussive effects in both piccolo and piano to great effect. The first movement, Lively, practically defines the word with dramatic, syncopated, and vivacious gestures in both instruments propelling the movement to its stratospheric conclusion. The second movement, Gently, is a laid-back bluesy affair with sultry harmonies that takes the listener right into the smoke-filled bar-room. (Well, not in my city of Bloomington, where even bars cannot allow smoking by the patrons nowadays.) The sonata concludes with Fiery, a hard-driven, jazzy snapshot of motoristic rhythms and cascades of notes in both instruments. I love this piece: It could be arranged for orchestra to make a piece that would likely enter the standard repertory. Solo piccolo works are so seldom heard that I doubt that one can speak of a “standard repertory” for the instrument.
Franz Kanefzky (b. 1964) dropped the piano in his The Pied Piper of Hamelin in favor of a narrator and the wind player alternates between piccolo and flute in the work. The narration is in German, and my speaking ability in that language is limited, although the anonymous narrator (perhaps Schwaabe herself?) brings a distinctive personality to the role. In any case, the story is well known enough that a non-German-speaking listener can appreciate its progress and the musical commentary that flute and piccolo provide to the story (which is given in the booklet in English, for the benefit of those who don’t know it). I was amused at one short lick that was straight out of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, but generally Kanefzky’s freely tonal wandering lines provided a very effective companion to the story. Following is the Huit ilium by Norwegian composer Jan Erik Michalsen (b. 1979). The title refers to a fictitious city in New York, the birthplace of Billy Pilgrim, a character in Slaugterhouse-Five of Kurt Vonnegut. The music is quite harsh and gruff, pulling no punches in its impact upon the listener, and it effectively communicates through the shrieking of the piccolo the nature of the dystopia portrayed by Vonnegut in his iconic novel.
Wrapping up the recital is Lachrymose by Derek Charke (b. 1974), a Canadian flutist and composer based in Nova Scotia, where he teaches at the Acadia University School of Music. The concept of the Lachrymosa comes from the Christian belief of a Great Day of Judgment, at which time there will be much weeping (the root meaning of the word) and gnashing of teeth. This work again employs only solo piccolo, and after two pages of florid figuration the piccolo loses itself in endlessly and gradually ascending repeated three-note figures. Here, the performer is called upon to intone notes while playing—something I wouldn’t have thought possible on this instrument. The effect yields mystery and pathos, forming a somber close to a very interesting recital.
Natalie Schwaabe proves herself herein to be a piccolo player of consummate skill, and pianist Jan Philip Schulze is a most sympathetic and gifted collaborator in the pieces that utilize him. I found the entire CD to be captivating and well worth exploring, and containing works that will bear up well on repeated listening. Highly recommended to collectors, even to those who might not consider themselves particularly adventurous.
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