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There is no real shortage of exceptional performers on any of the standard orchestral instruments, and opportunities to hear virtuoso players are readily available. What is unusual in this day is the chance to experience a revolutionary approach to an instrument - someone who exposes possibilities that had not even been dreamed of before. In the early 20th century Pablo Casals showed that the cello can be a solo instrument on par with the violin, and Segovia brought the classical guitar to a position of respectability and greatly broadened its repertoire. For those who have never heard her, the following might seem like musical blasphemy, but Danish-born Michala Petri is to the recorder what those two legends were to their respective instruments.
On May 13, the North Carolina Symphony closed out the first half of this season's Great Artist Series (it runs on a calendar-year basis) with the only U.S. appearance this spring and summer of recorder virtuoso Michala Petri and her husband, guitarist/lutenist Lars Hannibal. Petri appeared with the NC Symphony in 1999, playing a Vivaldi concerto and a new work, but it is a bit of an irony that the NCS presented these two instruments together in their relatively new, prestigious series because the guitar has never been a member of the standard orchestra, and recorders and lutes have basically not been used since the Baroque period. These instruments have gone through a musicological roller coaster of remarkable popularity and an abundance of repertoire, to near extinction, to their current, very healthy state of popularity. They also both have the double-edged sword of being fairly easy to learn at the beginning but requiring considerable discipline and time to play at a high level.
A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater is one of the most comfortable and comforting venues in this area, and it was especially well suited to this evening's performance. Petri remarked several times about the excellent acoustics of the hall. The program began precisely at 8:00 p.m., and as the two performers walked out, it was a safe bet that most people had never seen one of the instruments and did not know what it was. In addition to a standard classical guitar, Hannibal also brought a five-foot-long instrument known as an archlute or theorbo. It has fourteen strings, with the six bottom ones strung off the fingerboard to a tuning box almost in the other room. Petri had a stand behind her to hold her several different types of recorders, but as an added bonus to her astounding virtuosity she played the entire program from memory. The first two selections were Baroque compositions originally for recorder and basso continuo. The evening began with J.S. Bach's Sonata in F Major, played by Petri on the treble recorder. The combination of recorder and theorbo is an especially captivating sound, ancient, intimate and powerful, though not in volume. The soprano range of the recorder family was featured next in Vivaldi's Sonata in G Major. It was in the Allegro movement of this work that Petri's performance went from simply remarkable to a level of virtuosity and musicality that was a had-to-hear-it-to-believe-it moment - with many more to come. If this had been a sporting event, the members of the audience would have jumped out of their seats!
There was a short break from the Baroque period as Petri introduced the next work - a "Potpourri on Themes by Beethoven and Rossini" by Joseph Mayseder. This is one of the very few 19th century works written specifically for recorder. Compositions using opera themes and great composers' works were a dime a dozen during this time, and this particular work is an unexceptional example of the genre.
Much of this evening's program (and Petri's recordings, too) involved transcriptions. Some are hard to imagine, prior to hearing her play them, and none more so than her rendition of the famous "Devil's Trill" Sonata by Giuseppe Tartini. This is one of the great virtuoso showpieces for violin, and it seems unimaginable on a single-line instrument. Was it an aural illusion or did she actually play double stops? I am running out of accolades and superlatives to describe her performance but this was the highlight of the evening for me.
Hannibal, for the most part, did a nice job accompanying his wife but could have used a much wider dynamic range and tone color variation. To be entirely fair, except for guitarists (like me) in attendance, I doubt that many people paid much attention to him. When you work with an artist of Petri's stature you tend to toil in obscurity. In the second half, Hannibal used a classical guitar. His lone solo piece, the well-known "Asturias," by Isaac Albeniz, lacked any real expressive backing.
When transcriptions are an integral part of your musical arsenal, sometimes they just don't work out, no matter how extraordinary the playing. The main offender this evening was "Gypsy Airs," Op. 20, by Pablo de Sarasate, originally for violin and orchestra. As the title suggests, it relies on the fire and expressiveness of gypsy violin playing, and the recorder just cannot support that style or passion - and if she can't bring it off, it can't be done! This was also true, although not to the same extent, in the famous "Meditation," from Thaïs , by Massenet.
The first encore was an unaccompanied set of variations on a Danish folk song wherein Petri pulled out all the stops, displaying some unique effects and articulations that brought the disbelief up to yet another level. I was probably in the majority of those in attendance who had never heard a recorder recital, but I left with a newfound respect for and interest in this ancient instrument. Perhaps Petri, like Segovia and Casals, is setting a new level only eventually to be overtaken by later generations. For now, however, if there is a better recorder player alive today, it can't be human.