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Peter SCHICKELE (b.1935)
Schickele on a Lark

Sextet (1990)
String Quartet No.2 In Memorium (1988)
Quintet No.2 for piano and strings (1997)
The Lark Quartet with
Robert Rinehart (viola)
Julia Lichten (cello)
Peter Schickele (piano)
Recorded at the Recital Hall, the Performing Arts Centre, Purchase College, State University of New York, December 1997
ARABESQUE Z6719 [74.03]


Schickele on a Lark is a play on the name of the String Quartet with which he has been associated. That same quartet has distinguished itself in the American repertoire (vide their Amy Beach on Arabesque). Also one assumes, given Schickele’s predilection for humour, that this is also a reference to being ‘on a lark’, as in jesting. But this is Schickele not P.D.Q. Bach, a name by which he has been known to go. He shows, not for the first time, a well-developed sense of colour and affinities in this charming collection of chamber works.

His Sextet shows a distinctly Graingeresque attitude to markings and tempos (Slow, Still is the third movement of this six-movement work and the fifth is marked Easy-Going Waltz Tempo). This is a colourful and rhythmically alive Sextet with tinges of minimalism as well as countrified dancery. It’s perhaps more a suite than a sextet but perhaps it’s the composer’s prerogative to call it what he wants. The Quintet owes at least some of its inspiration to Brahms, whose similar work in F minor is one of Schickele’s favourites. He plays what he modestly calls a composer’s piano and it’s certainly true that the Brahmsian inheritance is filtered most clearly in the opening movement, which is relatively dense for Schickele. Elsewhere we meet more of those unmistakable directions (Flowing-A Bit Faster, Slow, Serene and Lively) and plenty of bravura boogie in the second movement (a Scherzo) which is full of pizzicati and drive, a real foot-tapper, complete with an old time dancing sequence (a sort of Schickeled Waltz) with imitation of what he calls ‘Celtic fiddle’. Again, who am I to argue with him but surely he’s been eating Cajun here, not Celtic. Well he calls it Celtic, I calls it Cajun but one thing’s for sure – there’s a delicious imitation fiddle and accordion duet somewhere along the line. The slow movement is a touch mordant with a xylophone imitation (that’s what it sounds like to me) and is full of rich viola tone. Now the finale, yes I’ll agree, is a kind of Celtic-Hungarian thing, with folksy fiddles flailing and a cimbalom egging them on. One can almost see Schickele at the keyboard, decked out in his embroidered finery, urging the troops onward with a dance hall roar.

The Quartet is a different kind of work, composed in memory of a Russian dissident friend and member of Schickele’s family. In four movements and lasting twenty minutes it opens with bell tolls and cultivates some intriguing sonorities – there are moments in the first movement when the violin harmonics sound like a glass harmonica. The second movement is a Scherzo, driving and loquacious, with a kind of wrong-note folksiness to it (was this in imitation of Kiril Uspensky’s occasional wrong note use of English – "Would you like anything more?" "No, thank you, I’m fed up."). Schickele also quotes from Haydn’s Lark Quartet – a tribute to the group playing, of course – and flirts with some more boogie. The finale opens with repeated mournful cello figures and some flickering, wavering writing before a little ascent takes us to the end of it all – a moment of gravity balanced by sweet intimacy.

Above all else Schickele’s writing is good humoured and fun – and graciously written as well. The dark is subsumed to the brightest sunlight when he’s around – and he plays a mean boogie.

Jonathan Woolf

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