PETER SCHIKELE: A Year in the Catskills; Gardens; What Did You Do Today at Jeffrey’s House?; Dream Dances; Diversions – Blair Woodwind Quintet/ Felix Wang, cello/ Melissa Rose, piano – Naxos 8.559687 52:03 ***:
Even if music lovers don’t know Peter Schickele by name, let alone by his works under that name, they probably know him by his alias: P. D. Q. Bach. He introduced this “oddest of J. S. Bach’s 20-odd children” way back in 1965, at Town Hall in New York, and left audiences in stitches for many years with his mixture of bad puns, sophisticated humor filled with musicological inside jokes, and ingeniously awful pseudo-Baroque music.
Schickle’s penchant for “mixing it up” also led him to his popular and award-winning radio show called Schickele Mix, which according to the composer’s own web site “explored Duke Ellington’s maxim that ‘if it sounds good, it is good’ . . . combining such seemingly diverse music as Ravel, the Beach Boys, Willie Nelson, and Cole Porter into suites that demonstrate how these pieces unexpectedly share a similar musical technique or idea. . . .” Given that kind of musical thinking, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Schickele’s more serious music is eclectic and at times, well, pretty unserious. That’s the case with the wind music contained on this Naxos disc featuring musicians from Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music. Since Schikele’s own instrument is the bassoon, his attraction to wind music is understandable. Musicologist Deane Root speaks of Schickele’s chamber music for winds as “strongly tonal . . . [and] postmodern in their small forms, neo-romantic in their light impressionistic texture, and neo-classical in their instrumentation, meter and mood.” That just about covers it all, with the exception of atonal-serial; as I say, Schickele is nothing if not an eclectic.
The neo-Classical side of Schickele is most evident in his brief, early (1963) Diversions, which is probably my favorite work on the program. It has the fidgety, clipped energy of Stravinsky’s tart Études for Orchestra. The neo-Romantic Schickele is evident here and there, but especially in the longest and most recent work, A Year in the Catskills, (and the CD’s title), commissioned by the Blair Woodwind Quintet. Starting with spring, the first four movements depict the seasons in the pastoral setting of the title. There’s effective writing for the instruments and some interesting musical ideas throughout, though my interest lags in spots. The finest writing comes in the unexpectedly sober fourth movement Winter: Lament. Schickele describes the capper, Finale: Fast Ride, as “a bebop jazz kind of thing.” But it’s jazz stylized and a tad rarefied, an effective mix that Schickele doesn’t, for me, always manage.
I’m speaking specifically of What Did You Do Today at Jeffrey’s House? for horn and piano, a piece of musical nostalgia that takes Schickele back to days horsing around with one of his childhood chums, and Dream Dances for flute, oboe and cello. Both works are from 1988, when Schickele must have had even more “mixed feelings” about music than usual. Here, the performers bop and jive along in a way that must have sounded dated when the pieces were written, in the manner of Leonard Bernstein’s more embarrassing excursions into jazz, or what he thought of as jazz, in his serious works. Even in these pieces, though, there are movements that show Schickele’s knack for the unsentimentally Romantic musical gesture, such as the tender Sarabande finale of Dream Dances. And I can’t help but be amused by the Galop that precedes this movement, a sort of William Tell Overture meets the blues.
As you can tell, I’m not altogether comfortable with the mixed messages I get from Schickele’s music, though the best of it is skillfully written and ear-catching. Certainly the Blair Woodwind Quintet is firmly in Schickele’s corner, and the musicians all play with consummate understanding and skill.
Naxos’s recording was set down at the Blair School of Music in a hall that may be a bit on the dry side. At any rate, the recording is close-up, high-level. I noticed some distortion in the louder passages when listening on headphones, and it was hard to tame the shrillness when I listened through speakers. This problem was most evident in the piece for wind quintet; the other pieces were acceptably, if not outstandingly, recorded.
Romantic Piano Music from early 1900s…