Heard This and Thought of You. Music by Ortiz, Banister, Keller, Locke, Barbeler, Bach, Beamish, Palestrina, Seattle

James Crabb, classical accordion; Genevieve Lacey, recorders
Classical, Early Music, New Music
ABC Classics 481 1874
Reviewed by , October 1st, 2015

There isn’t, you’ll be surprised to hear, a vast repertoire for recorder(s) and accordion, though the ever-resourceful Genevieve Lacey and James Crabb haven’t let this stand in their way. Their newly-released Heard this and thought of you is, as you might expect from two such excellent performers, never less than charming, displaying great musicianship, virtuosity where necessary and flexibility in approaching music of sometimes wildly different provenance.

Genevieve Lacey

Genevieve Lacey

Naturally, much of the music consists of arrangements (or in some cases arrangements of arrangements) of works from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Balancing this is a group of new works composed for this combination.

The Renaissance is represented, first, by two contrasting recercadas by Diego Ortiz (who was born in Toledo but worked mainly in Naples from the mid-16th century). His numerous recercadas, or studies, are mainly for violón, or bass viol, some with keyboard accompaniment, and often based on popular dance-forms or currently popular madrigals. The sound-world evoked by Lacey and Crabb here is by no means inauthentic: the accordion is, after all, a distant relation of the regal – a small, portable, bellows-driven reed organ popular in Ortiz’s time. The accordion is in fact much more responsive and expressive, especially as played by Crabb, both in the punchy rhythms of the first track and the more reflective sound of the second.

The musicians can rightly claim that their instruments blend almost imperceptibly in Francesco Rognoni’s ‘Divisions’ on Palestrina’s madrigal Vestiva i colli and their musical affinity is perfect for their version of Matthew Locke’s Suite No.4, consisting of various courtly dances.

The Baroque is equally well served. John Banister – composer, violinist and flageolet player and sometime music master to the British Princess Anne (in 1677) – would no doubt have approved of the sound of his Divisions on a Ground, where Crabb subtly supports the intricate weave of Lacey’s melodic lines.

Bach compiled his set of six organ sonatas, BWV 525-530, seemingly as teaching aid for his son Wilhelm Friedemann, in 1730 using some recycled material of his own. Effectively trio sonatas, these stress the independence – and interdependence – of the different lines, and in the hands of Lacey and Crabb this is rendered with beautiful clarity in the D minor Sonata BWV 527.

It is a short step from the Renaissance and Baroque dances to the folk-inspired music with which the accordion is traditionally associated. Here Crabb offers his arrangements of two extended variations on folk melodies from the Scottish border country by Matt Seattle, a celebrated performer of (and composer for) Border (or Lowland) pipes, which are somewhat less alarming than the Highland variety.

James Crabbe

James Crabb

The remainder of the disc is given over to new works by the duo’s ‘composer friends’. Like Seattle, Sally Beamish was born in England but has made Scotland her literal and artistic home. Her piano trio, for instance, is entitled Pibroch which, for those of you who didn’t go to a Melbourne boys’ school, is a form of bagpipe music. She has written operas and musicals on Scottish subjects, and 13 concertos including The Singing, composed for James Crabb. Crabb returns the compliment here with an arrangement of the slow movement, Lament, from Seavaigers, a concerto for fiddle and clàrsach (or Celtic harp). Here a plangent melody is repeated quietly as an eloquent elegy for those seafarers who in TS Eliot’s words, ‘ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips/ Or in the dark throat which will not reject them’.

The notion of oblivion is presumably behind Andrea Keller’s Where is Everybody? Which, as the performers’ note tells us, ‘contemplates our dizzyingly tiny place in infinite’. Both Keller and Damien Barbeler, in his Shadow Box, experiment to fascinating ends with the available sonorities and extended expressive possibilities provided by the duo.

That being said, the palette and dynamic range of the duo is necessarily relatively restricted, and requires a degree of concentration from the listener; such concentration will be richly rewarded with a range of sounds and details, but without it the music might retreat dangerously close to wallpaper. I can’t help wondering if that danger might have been mitigated by a little more information in the liner-notes. In lieu of that, we are treated to the whimsy of six ‘letters’, written in response to six of the works and the notion of ‘heard this and thought of you’. Some refer directly to the works, while others use them as a spring board for allusive or elusive slices of fiction, or ruminations on music itself. Where there’s whimsy, inevitably, there’s Michael Leunig, and he is joined by Chloe Hooper, Scott Rankin, Luke Davies, Helen Garner and Jana Wendt. These won’t all be everyone’s cup of oolong, but it’s a sweet idea. But more important: listen – really listen – to some beautiful music beautifully played.

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