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Michala Petri is arguably the world's foremost virtuoso recorder player. Along with the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, her album 'The Nightingale' was recently nominated for a 2013 Grammy award. While suffering diminished appeal since the dawn of the Romantic era, Petri's instrument was notably cherished by Johann Sebastian Bach; Beethoven, in his notebooks, also had plans of writing a large-scale work for the piano and the czakan, a recorder-like instrument. Below is the transcript of our mid-February 2013 conversation with Michala Petri in San Francisco.
EH: Please describe your musical background and the artistic culture of your birthplace.
Petri: My father is a violinist and my mother is a pianist, so I’ve been hearing music all my life. I started playing at three and had my first music teacher at five. When I was eleven, I started studying seriously in Germany; my mother and I would travel 500 kilometers by train every Monday evening, returning on Wednesday. This continued until I was seventeen. From then on, I’ve been playing concerts full-time.
Denmark is, of course is very much like Germany: in terms of culture, the same kind of thinking, etc. When I was very young, Denmark was a very small country, and we still are, but it was then very provincial and everybody knew everybody (laughs). Now, we are very much like the rest of the world, especially with the arrival of the internet.
EH: At what age did you realize that your ability at the instrument was a bit unusual ?
Petri: Many people used to call me a child prodigy, but I never thought that. I knew that I had learned everything, that I had very good circumstances. At that time, it was quite unusual to use the recorder as a concert instrument. But my mother, a pianist, actually helped me a lot by assuming that anything done on the piano can easily be done on the recorder! She helped me with technique and was just as critical about my playing as she was with her own. I think that has been one of my fortunes.
I was also one of the first of my generation to play the recorder. The generation before mine was Frans Brüggen, who really brought the old style, the authentic style of the recorder. He really was the pioneer, so to speak. I was also very young at the time, which is often interesting to many people. So because of these things, I had a fortunate start to my career.
EH: The history and popularity of instruments through the musical eras are always fascinating. What are the real strengths and weaknesses of your instrument ? And why might its relevance be found in our time ?
Petri: To me, the advantage of the recorder is that it is so natural. I love the fact that it is just a piece of wood, that there are almost no mechanics involved. Of course, this means that you cannot shape the tone yourself, not very much in any case. When you play the oboe, the flute or other wind instruments, there is something between you and the breath; there is the embouchure, the reed, etc. But with the recorder, I receive an immediate response from the instrument. This is something that attracted me to the instrument, that I could immediately feel the response of what I was doing.
I think the naturalness and ‘primitive’ nature of the instrument is what’s attracting composers to write for it again. Composers often think in terms of music and not of an instrument itself. As long as they don’t object to a given instrument and can find musicians who can perform the music well, then it shouldn’t be a problem to write for it. I also think that today, in Europe at least, people don’t tend to think so much about the instrument that is producing the music; they are more interested to see if the musician actually has something to say. Of course, the recorder will never have the repertoire of the piano or the violin.
The disadvantage is that it is a relatively soft instrument. It is not very natural to make dynamic changes with the recorder. When you play a long note and want to make a diminuendo, the pitch will fall, and vice versa. So you need to adjust these with your fingers. The tone is also very direct, like an organ. You cannot start out of nothing or make the tone disappear into nothing. Most likely, these are the reasons the instrument was not so used in the Romantic period. Composers of that era wanted to color tones and express on single long notes, and this is very different from the music of the Baroque, where most of the recorder repertoire is found.
EH: There is a large gap in terms of repertoire for your instrument, between the time of Mozart and the music of the twentieth century. Is there a composer who, for you, stands out as having best understood the musical possibilities of the instrument ?
Petri: Georg Philipp Telemann, definitely. He played the recorder himself, and all the music he wrote fits so wonderfully for the instrument. But actually, I have always personally preferred to think of what is more difficult for my instrument, and not what is the most natural or the easiest. I enjoy the challenges - especially those that come with composers who have written contemporary music for the recorder. Each composer has their own language, and I try to meet the challenges, even if at first sight, they appear impossible.
EH: What are the major changes that have occurred with respect to compositional style and your instrument ? How have you been inspired to meet these challenges ?
Petri: The simplest is probably that some pieces are written for a large symphony orchestra and one recorder (laughs). Recorder-makers have tried to change the instrument to make this work. You need to express things stronger today, more so than in the Baroque time, and you need to expand the expressiveness of the instrument. There are various playing techniques that have also changed. In contemporary music, the challenge for me is to make the recorder sound as naturally expressive as, for example, the violin – without doing it too much and forcing the instrument. It is very easy to be overly expressive on the recorder, and finding the balance is quite difficult.
My father, of course, is a violinist and he influenced me very much. Looking for inspiration in expression, I have actually always looked to singers and violinists. I have never really looked only at the recorder as a remedy for my expressions. When I was young, I listened to Menuhin a lot. From Heifetz, I picked up the sureness of his playing, the feeling that it could not be done any other way, that feeling of security. I’ve always been very inspired by people who can make their instrument sound very natural.
EH: What are your thoughts on performance: Are we trying to recreate or match a certain level of authenticity from previous generations ?
Petri: I think it can be both. For people who like to recreate the authentic way of playing, they can do this very well in a lively manner. But I can also enjoy people who play outside of ‘the right way’. I mean, we have many rules, but we don’t have all of them. If you ask me about music and how things should be played, I believe that music-making is the combination of having learned how to do something right, what one feels is right to do in the moment, and the way the audience is listening. It is important to note that the world changes and that perception of music changes as well. In concert, I often try to feel the audience and feel their way of hearing. If I feel that there is no contact between the audience and the music, I try to look stronger within myself, hoping that this will lead to a better contact.
EH: Ms. Petri, thank you so much for taking the time today.
Petri: Thank you, it was my pleasure!