The American Flute. – Robert Stallman, David Buechner

The American Flute. – Robert Stallman, David Buechner – sound recording reviews

Catherine Parsons Smith

The post-World War I modernist period saw a search for new sounds that would facilitate an escape from late Romantic sentimentality and/or “feminization.” A renascence of composition for woodwind instruments was one of the happier results. For the flute, whose popular role in the nineteenth century had been defined by sets of variations on popular and/or operatic melodies, a new and more ambitious concert repertory of “serious,” generally neo-classical suites and sonatas, emerged. The American Flute presents no fewer than six works from this genre, what one might call the intimate side of musical modernism, Written between 1929 and 1971, they outstretch the period normally assigned to modernism. Some are well known and available in other collections; one is a neo-classical novelty from 1948. A seventh, from 1990, is a first recording and represents a postmodernist look back at this rich musical legacy. All are for flute and piano, or (in one case) for flute alone. The overall quality of the music in this collection makes it easy to understand why modernism, with all its troubling and pervasive contextual issues, is well worth the arguments that continue to swirl around it.

The first and finest of this very fine lot is Walter Piston’s Sonata, published in 1930. The first movement especially is constructed with inspired grace. A lyrical first theme with its running accompaniment is balanced by a staccato, syncopated second theme; flute and piano trade voices to create a contrasting, mysterious middle section that manages to create its own effect; the transitions from one section to another have resemblances that are familial rather than repetitive; and the short coda trails off in a last word for the initial accompanying figure. The slow movement offers a more severe, extended lyricism over a measured eighth-note bass line; the dosing rondo scintillates before ending almost too soon. Wallingford Riegger’s Suite for Unaccompanied Flute appeared in Cowell’s New Music Edition in the same year. It is modeled on the four-movement baroque church sonata: a slow prelude-like movement paired with a lightning-fast gigue and a sustained adagio, “molto con sentimento,” followed by an angular staccato “allegro ironico.” Riegger may have tried to write forbiddingly atonal music here, but what shines through is a gift for contrast, balance, wit, and melody.

Joseph Goodman’s Sonata (1948), one of two works premiered on this CD, was, according to the notes, inspired by Piston, his teacher. Each of three movements begins with a clearly defined theme; piano and flute frequently engage in dose imitative dialogue. If not as gracious as his teacher’s model, it exudes contrapuntal energy and is well worth hearing more than once. Barber is represented by a one-movement work, an arrangement by the composer of the slow movement of his Piano Concerto for flute and piano (1962), called Canzone. It is an attractive example of Barber’s lyrical adagio style.

Copland’s Duo for flute and piano was commissioned by former students of William Kincaid, long principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and for decades the dominant teacher of flutists in the United States. It comes very late in Copland’s career (1971); the composer’s familiar, perhaps already shaky hand is heard throughout. The opening dramatic statement by the flute alone lays out melodic fifths and octaves; it is repeated at the interval of the fourth above at the end of the movement. In between, a middle section winds down before one can begin to speculate about the need for a sprinkling of passage-work in a “modern” composition. The closing movement is enlivened by a saving rhythmic vitality, very well realized here.

William Thomas McKinley’s Six Romances (“Secrets of the Heart”) from 1990 is the contemporary novelty of the collection. As performed here, the fourth romance, a minute twenty-nine seconds marked “Tormented,” is far the most eloquent of the group.

Robert Stallman’s flute playing is excellent, and David Buechner is a splendid partner. The very fine sound yields an exemplary balance between flute and piano, better than is often possible in live performances. The production deserves much better than the skimpy, uninformative liner notes provided, however. Consider this sample: “[The Copland Duo] confines elegiac character to the cultural movement, and here indeed lies the heart of the matter.”

Flutes, on the other hand, is the result of a National Endowment Consortium Commissioning Grant generated by Paula Robison, Ransom Wilson, and Carol Wincenc, the three major flutists featured on this recording. Robert Beaser, Joseph Schwantner, and Paul Schoenfield are the commissioned composers. In addition to the new works for flute and orchestra, a second, smaller work for flute and piano by each composer is included. All three performers have consistently sought out and performed new music. Indeed, their solo careers – none of them is a member of a major orchestra – are possible at least partly because of the contributions to the flute repertory by the modernists and the consequent rise in the status of the flute as a medium for the performance of “serious” music.

The new works have in common powerful, virtuosic demands on the soloists, a product of the new virtuosity that has accompanied the flute’s emergence in recent decades. All the pieces are of high quality, though their styles vary substantially. Schoenfield’s Klezmer Rondos for flute, orchestra, and (in the closing section) male vocalist, may be the most interesting. The klezmer were performers in the ghettos and Jewish communities of eastern Europe who entertained on secular and sacred festive occasions, often in ensembles that consisted of double bass, clarinet, and trumpet. Schoenfield’s version of some traditional klezmer tunes is exuberant; trombone, clarinet, saxophone, and other instruments handle their solos in a broad style that owes something to Dixieland jazz as well as Yiddish culture. Sometimes the rhythmic drive is suspended while the flute answers with a rhapsodic passage; sometimes the solo joins in the orchestral dialogue. The alternating sections of the rondo are slightly andante. The baritone joins the party late in the piece and sings a ballad of “Mirele,” who, rejecting all suitors, stands in the window as the years go by and her beauty fades.

Robert Beaser’s Song of the Bells takes a form the composer describes as an asymmetrical arch. Beginning with quiet bell-like sounds in the orchestra, including a strong suggestion of Big Ben’s familiar pattern, flute and orchestra alternate as a climax gradually builds and then, more quickly, fades away. (“Big Ben” returns at the end, elaborated upon by the soloist.) The texture may be avant-garde, but the melodic patterns and arpeggios have a diatonic, triadic quality about them that makes this piece of the late 1980s sound kinder and gentler than its predecessors in the 1960s. Some of the solo figuration in this lovely work is improvised, so it is not clear how much of the work is Robison’s and how much of it is the composer.

If Schoenfield’s piece is up-front and Beaser’s is a rather laid-back, 1990 kind of avant-garde work, Schwantner’s Play of Shadows . . . fantasy for flute and orchestra deals, albeit fitfully, with shadows that may be more internal than otherwise. Beginning with an orchestral flourish, the flute takes a series of virtuosic, rhapsodic passages over sustained sonorities, punctuated irregularly with more orchestral flourishes. The orchestral texture probably includes even more bell-type sounds than does Beaser’s Song. Ultimately the work moves to a more lyrical dosing section that does not seem to come to a convincing close; the succeeding piano and flute piece, which shares something of the style of Play of Shadows, begins before the listener feels Schwantner has quite finished what he started out to say in the concerto. Copious program notes are offered, though with little apparent editing from material submitted by the composers; the lyrics to “Mirele” are given, along with an English translation. The recorded sound is likewise fine, though one imagines that the flute sound produced by each of the soloists is treated slightly differently in each work, exaggerating the perception of contrasting characteristic sounds among the three virtuosi.

These two issues affirm that the flute is alive and well as a solo instrument, and that its twentieth-century repertory is thriving. Quite possibly one or two of these works will wear as well as Piston’s Sonata for flute and piano.

Catherine Parsons Smith University of Nevada Reno

COPYRIGHT 1995 University of Illinois Press

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