Sean Hickey speaking into microphone

Fanfare reviews A Pacifying Weapon

È HICKEY A Pacifying Weapon1. T. CLAUSEN Concertino for recorder and strings2  —  1Jean Thorel, cond; 2Clemens Schuld, cond; 1Royal Danish Academy of Music Concert Band; 2Lapland CO; Michala Petri (rcr)  —  OUR RECORDINGS 001 (41:50) Reviewed from a FLAC download: 174.6 kHz/24-bit

 

Title and concept comes from the lyrics to an indie folk song, Welcome Me, by the Indigo Girls, a duo whose work is not often cited in these pages. Imagine a weapon—a pacifying weapon—the use of which brings “an instant and irreversible peace.” American composer Sean Hickey’s flight of fantasy grew from that image, as he contemplated the world in its present chaos, and tried to imagine a device, an “instrument”: something that would confront the violence and end it. It’s a beautiful dream. If it proves elusive, even in the three-movement concerto for recorder and wind ensemble that gives that aspiration voice, it is nonetheless a marvelous thing to contemplate.

In his notes, Hickey explains that he chose the recorder because of its lengthy history “as witness to the rise and fall of empires, crusades, wars, and countless births and deaths, as a musical voyeur.” It acts here as observer, but also as metaphor for the speaking of truth to power: the small voice raised against the mighty. Traditional concertos create tension by pitting the soloist against the resources of the orchestra. Hickey seemingly goes one better by arming a soloist with a threesome of diminutively voiced recorders—soprano, alto, and bass—against a moderate-sized but potent ensemble of 33: woodwinds, brass, a harp, and an imposing phalanx of percussion. True, much of the time the recorder plays alone or in combination with ensemble soloists or small sections, but at other times, the symbolic threat is very real, with the recorder overshadowed by massive waves of brass or percussion. The result is like a flower-bearing David against an implacable Goliath or better, the Tiananmen Square protestor against the tanks.

It is, however, a joy to listen without the political—or as soloist Michala Petri suggests in a YouTube trailer—the human statement proposed by the program. The sonorities are beautiful in themselves, with the various recorders high-spirited, poignant, darkly angry, or plucky. Hickey’s writing for the recorder—idiomatic and ingenious in its interactions with other instruments—draws less on the sheer virtuosity for which Petri is justly famous than on her considerable skills at musical characterization, her unparalleled ability to sustain a phrase with rock-solid pitch, and her remarkable capacity to color the sound of her instrument. The writing for brass is sonorous and the woodwinds lively and vivid. The percussion, assembled with the guidance of Gert Mortensen, world-renowned percussionist and professor at the Danish Royal Academy of Music, is imposing and full of character. All of the ensemble members are students at that conservatory, representing 11 countries—a statement in itself—and even making no allowance for their status, they are most impressive. Noted French conductor Jean Thorel, who led an earlier English Recorder Concertos disc with Petri, directs with panache.

Strangely, vinyl is the only physical carrier on which OUR Recordings has released the music. I am not part of the LP-nostalgia craze. I find that high-resolution digital has all of the advantages of high-end analog, without the noise and distortions, however benign some find them. For audiophiles who take their music in ones and zeros, OUR does offer downloads from multiple sites in original DXD (352.8 kHz/24-bit), 174.6/24, and 96/24. I have heard CD resolution WAV files, as well. I reviewed 174.6 kHz files, the highest of the three rates which my DAC handles. The sound is spectacular: tactile, with a stable, convincing soundstage, plenty of air around the instruments, and beautiful definition on percussion transients. It doesn’t get better than this.

But does the dream have a happy ending? Yes, it seems, as a sprightly dance between the soloist and members of the ensemble appears near the conclusion of the final movement, set to the Scottish folksong, Druimuachdar or The Highland Road to Inverness. However, it ends with a short duet between recorder and snare drum—fife and drum, the composer notes— halted with a belligerent roll-tap from the drum. Ambiguous at best, I’d say, though there should be nothing ambiguous about the listener’s delight. The program is concluded with Thomas Clausen’s pleasing neo-Baroque Concertino for recorder and strings, a “bonus track” reprised from the label’s earlier Nordic Sound release (Fanfare 39:2). Some may balk at the LP-imposed time limit, but premium art justifies premium investment, and I cannot imagine any lover of the recorder or the eclectic and accessible music of Sean Hickey feeling at all shortchanged. Warmly recommended. Ronald E. Grames

Recordings

A Pacifying Weapon album cover