breath harmonica CDS7965

A Breath Between the Strings
Gordon Jacob (1895-1984)
Divertimento for harmonica and string quartet (1956)
James Moody (1907-1995)
Quintet for harmonica and string quartet (1972)
Tony Kinsey (b.1927)
Reflections, Quintet for string quartet and harmonica
Gianluca Littera (harmonica)
Quartetto Energie Nove
rec. 2017, Lugano, RSI, Auditorio, Stelio Molo
Dynamic CDS7965 [68]

This enterprising disc sees a trio of British music for harmonica and string quartet performed by Italian musicians. Gianluca Littera is an astute choice as soloist given that he is as well versed in jazz as he is in the classical chromatic harmonica, and in reportorial terms Tony Kinsey fits both bills: a long-term drummer and bandleader on the London jazz scene and also, though this is less well-known, a composer of tonal chamber music. At the time of writing he is still happily with us.

Gordon Jacob’s versatility is well-known, though, so it shouldn’t come as much surprise that he wrote a Divertimento in eight brief movements for harmonica and string quartet for Larry Adler in 1956. Tommy Reilly recorded it for Chandos many years later. Each movement, whether tinged with Baroque nomenclature or not, is full of character and vibrancy from the opening pert March onwards. The succeeding Romance is a luscious one, the strings offering a rich addictive blanket over which the harmonica spins its song. The Siciliano is threaded with pizzicati, the Scherzetto with perky exchanges, whilst the Sarabande flows with lyric generosity. Add a zesty Slavonic Dance, a focused Elegy and a sparkling finale and you have a thoroughly engaging work, beautifully cast for the harmonica.

James Moody’s Quintet was written in 1972 and is cast in four movements. Metrically varied, fluid and attractive, it situates itself in the quartet lineage but with the piquant addition of the harmonica which gives it an evocative, exotic patina. In his second movement Moody employs pizzicati – Ravel-like – and guitar evocations for the strings. The Lento is the heart of the Quintet, prayerful then more richly romanticised, and ripely lovely. Moody had been encouraged to write for the instrument by Reilly and the results of the Canadian’s tutelage are clear when, in the finale, short themes contrast with broader ones in the Theme and Variations; slow and dark, light and tuneful, whimsical and charming, and then more rigorous in a thoroughly convincing assemblage of themes.

I’m not sure if Kinsey knew of Moody’s Quintet but his is also cast in four conventional, classical movements. It bears the title ‘Reflections’ in most references I’ve seen, though it isn’t called that here. The influences are wider than in the companion works and include Piazzolla and Gershwin. Lyricism is nevertheless quite lean in places, the opening movement pausing for a moment of sadness before a Rhapsody in Blue sign off. It’s not far into the Larghetto before Kinsey unleashes blues motifs for the harmonica and quartet that sound very Porgy-like though the Scherzo is rather filmic. With the finale Piazzola’s influence returns inciting Kinsey to evoke Tango Nuevo and generously offers the first violin a high lying lyrical line before the close.

Littera and the Quartetto Energie Nove have been attractively recorded in Lugano and have selected their repertoire adroitly. It’s not an obvious choice for the general market but that may make it more attractive.

Jonathan Woolf

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