Gramophone Choice - August 2013
'Katherine Bryan and the RSNO capture the fluctuating moods of the music superbly in this performance, by turns lyrical, playful, sinister and violent.
Bryan certainly has complete mastery of the technical and expressive demands... exquisitely eloquent.'
'...Bryan plays with brilliance, dexterity and sensitivity, fully matching the demands and responses placed upon the soloist.' International Record Review
'A follow-up disc that is every bit as charming, lively and challenging as the first...[and] offer[s] up a delicious cocktail of rare and beautiful music. Bryan's wistful performances do every one of them justice. The Scotsman
'...captured in Linn's sonic splendour, [it's] simply amazing to hear...Highly recommended!' Maestro Steve
The flute concerto originates from the Baroque era, when it was pioneered by the likes of Antonio Vivaldi and Georg Philipp Telemann. It was later taken up by many of the best-loved composers of the classical era, although the popularity of the
flute as a solo instrument began to decline towards the end of the 18th century. Mozart once complained in a letter to his father that he became ‘quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument which I cannot bear', although he did write three very popular flute concertos - and, of course, the opera The Magic Flute.
It was not until the late 19th century, when Fauré, Debussy and Ravel revolutionised flute music with their pioneering take on Impressionism that the instrument again began to enjoy mainstream popularity. In the early 20th century, the flute was popularised further by the French flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, who toured around the world performing concertos by composers from Bach and Vivaldi to Gershwin and Ravi Shankar. More recently, flute concertos have been among the most successful works of many late 20th-century composers. The concertos of Carl Nielsen, Jacques Ibert, Aram Khachaturian (a violin concerto arranged for flute by Rampal), Malcolm Arnold and Kalevi Aho are among many regulars on the concert circuit.
Christopher Rouse: Flute Concerto (1993)
American composer Christopher Rouse, born in Baltimore in 1949, wrote his Flute Concerto in 1993 for Carol Wincenc and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and it is among his most successful and widely performed works.
Rouse studied with Richard Hoffmann at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and later with Karel Husa at Cornell University, and also undertook private studies with George Crumb. He dabbled as a percussionist while at Oberlin, and a fascination with percussion runs through many of his works. He has cited the iconic 1970s rock band Led Zeppelin as a major influence and much of his early work - including his successful first symphony, premiered by the Baltimore Symphony in 1986 - is influenced by rock music and characterised by intense, driving rhythms.
In the 1990s, Rouse wrote a series of works inspired by the deaths of people who were important to him. These compositions represented a different phase in the composer's output; one he describes as being motivated by a desire to ‘look towards the light'. His work became more introspective, driven more by quiet reflection than by the ferocious energy of his earlier compositions. The first work in this phase was his Pulitzer Prize-winning Trombone Concerto, written in 1991 and dedicated to Leonard Bernstein.
Rouse wrote his Flute Concerto after hearing about the death of James Bulger, the Liverpool toddler who was abducted and killed by two ten-year-olds in 1993. The concerto is in five movements, each of which is characterised by a different mood, tempo and harmonic language. The central movement, as the title suggests, is an elegy dedicated to the memory of the murdered two-year-old. The composer writes: ‘In a world of daily horrors too numerous and enormous to comprehend en masse, it seems that only isolated, individual tragedies serve to sensitise us to the potential harm man can do to his fellow.
[...] I followed this case closely during the time I was composing my concerto and was unable to shake the horror of these events from my mind.'
The work does have a lighter side, not least in the two outer movements. Both entitled ‘Amhrán' - the Gaelic word for song - they feature simple, melodic solo flute melodies accompanied by orchestral strings. Although both his parents' families immigrated to America before the Revolutionary War, Rouse has often spoken of the influence of his British heritage, claiming that he feels ‘a deep ancestral tug of recognition whenever I am exposed to the arts and traditions of the British Isles, particularly those of Celtic origin.'
He writes: ‘I have attempted to reflect my responses to these stimuli in my Flute Concerto [...]. The first and last movements [...] were intended in a general way to evoke the traditions of Celtic, especially Irish, folk music but to couch the musical utterance in what I hoped would seem a more spiritual, even metaphysical, manner through the use of extremely slow tempi, perhaps not unlike some of the recordings of the Irish singer Enya.'
The second and fourth movements are both faster in tempo; the second is a lively march, and the fourth a scherzo. The latter is again influenced by Celtic music, this time by the traditional Irish jig. The tempo gradually increases until the music becomes frenzied and feverish, harking back to the dynamic rhythmic energy of some of Rouse's earlier work.
The concerto received a standing ovation on its premiere in October 1994. John Guinn, a critic for the Detroit Free Press, wrote: ‘The tribute was deserved. Rouse [...] has crafted a moving work whose maturity places it well above the superficial sonic glitter sometimes passed off as worthwhile music as our century nears its end. [...] This concerto proves that Rouse is maturing as a composer and that he seems to have something both unique and worthwhile to say.'
Jacques Ibert: Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (1933)
Along with the Carl Neilsen Flute Concerto (1926), French composer Jacques Ibert's Concerto for Flute and Orchestra is one of the best-loved and most frequently performed concertos in the flute repertoire. Full of humour, virtuosity and intense technical challenges for the soloist, it is characteristic of Ibert's eclectic, versatile compositional style.
Ibert was one of the last composers dedicated to preserving the French classical tradition. Born in 1890, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire and was a lifelong Parisian, apart from a period as director of the Academy of Rome. He was a contemporary of ‘Les Six' - the group of early 20th-century French composers whose music represented a strong reaction against heavy German Romanticism, as well as against the chromaticism and rich orchestration of Claude Debussy. However, he was kept from joining this clique partly by the First World War, which saw him work as a stretcher-bearer and a naval officer.
In any case, Ibert's ethos may not have been suited to the radical opinions of his contemporaries. Although his use of harmony was progressive - he typically makes use of chords of the 9th, 11th and 13th, and much of his music was infused with elements of Impressionism and Neoclassicism - most of his work was firmly rooted in the classical tradition. In fact, he deliberately eschewed most of the fads and fashions of the time. ‘All systems are valid, provided one derives music from them,' he said. His biographer, Alexandra Laederich, writes of his wide range of influences: ‘His music can be festive and gay [...], lyrical and inspired, or descriptive and evocative [...], often tinged with gentle humour.' Humour is certainly one of the defining features of Ibert's flute concerto.
Written in 1933 for French flautist Marcel Moyse, it was premiered at the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire the following year. The brilliant third movement immediately became a test piece at the Conservatoire. Like most of Ibert's work, it represents a wide variety of styles and influences. It is treasured by flautists for its masterful orchestration, virtuosic writing for the soloist and vivid, picturesque charm. However, it was not performed in England or the U.S. until 1948, mainly because of its fiendish technical challenges.
The work opens with a rapid torrent of 16th notes, followed by a contrasting lyrical, expressive second theme. The 16ths soon make a second appearance, with the soloist having to contend with several bars of rapidly changing time signatures. Ahead of a performance of the work with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in 2009, flautist Bart Feller said: ‘The flautist has to concentrate on projecting above the orchestra, grabbing a breath and capturing Ibert's jazzy lightness. It's a challenge to make it sound effortless and French'.
The central ‘Andante' is lyrical and has a dreamy quality that is reminiscent of the central movement of what is probably Ibert's best-known work: the orchestral suite Escales (Ports of Call), inspired by his travels around the Mediterranean. During the years he spent in Italy, Ibert travelled extensively in Europe. On the evening of the premiere of his flute concerto, sitting in a hotel room in Marseille, he told a reporter: ‘I've always loved travel and setting out on journeys. I think if I hadn't been a musician I would have been a sailor'.
The closing ‘Allegro scherzando' - the flashy Conservatoire showpiece - is lively and distinctly jazz-influenced, with more rhythmic challenges for the soloist. Before embarking on formal study, Ibert worked for a short time as a cinema pianist. He later became a prolific composer of film music, employing a wide variety of popular styles, and also wrote extensively for live theatre. This theatrical influence is very much evident in the third movement of the flute concerto, which bristles with uniquely French drama and poise.
Claude Debussy: Syrinx (1913)
Neither Ibert nor Rouse could have composed their concertos, of course, without the influence of Claude Debussy. Born in 1862 and active as a composer until his death in 1918, Debussy had a profound influence on 20th century music; Stravinsky, Bartók, Ravel and Messiaen are among the countless composers who have acknowledged a debt to him. His use of unusual harmonies (parallel chords, bitonality, whole-tone and pentatonic scales) was pioneering, shocking and delighted audiences and critics in equal measure.
Debussy was a radical from the beginning, regularly failing his harmony exams at the Paris Conservatoire because he refused to play by the rules. A visit in 1889 to the Paris Exposition left him captivated by the charms of Javanese Gamelan and he retained a lifelong fascination with the music of the Far East. The flute features prominently in many of his most successful works, including the symphonic poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, which opens with a memorable solo flute line.
Debussy wrote the short solo flute piece Syrinx towards the end of his life, in 1913. Despite being only a little over three minutes long, it has achieved iconic status and is regarded as an essential piece in any serious flautist's repertoire. This is partly because it was the first significant composition for solo flute since C.P.E. Bach's Sonata in A minor some 150 years previously, but it is also because of the work's uniquely beguiling quality.
Syrinx was written as a piece of incidental music to be performed during a play called Psyché by Debussy's friend Gabriel Mourey. In classical mythology, Syrinx is a nymph known for her chastity. Pursued by the amorous Greek god Pan, she flees to a river's edge and asks for assistance from the river nymphs. She is then transformed into hollow water reeds that make a haunting sound when Pan's frustrated breath blows across them - hence the well-known term ‘panpipes'. In Mourey's play, the flute solo accompanied a scene at the end to mark the death of Pan. The piece was not published until 1927, nine years after Debussy's death.
Syrinx bears many of the hallmarks of Debussy's work, including the use of whole-tone and chromatic scales. It is filled with ambiguous harmonies and rhythms; it has been said that Debussy originally wrote the piece without bar lines and that these were added later by Marcel Moyse, a lifelong advocate of the composer's work. It seems likely that Syrinx was exactly the kind of music Debussy had in mind when he wrote: ‘My favourite music is those few notes an Egyptian shepherd plays on his flute: he is part of the landscape around him, and he knows harmonies that aren't in our books'.
Frank Martin: Ballade (1939)
The Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974) spent time in Paris in the early 1920s, where he is sure to have become acquainted with the music of Debussy. Over the course of his career, Martin composed a series of what he called ballades - one-movement works featuring a solo instrumental part. The Ballade (1939), one of the earliest, was composed after Martin returned to his home town of Geneva, having spent time exploring different musical styles in Zurich and Rome as well as Paris. The piece was written as a compulsory work for the inaugural Geneva International Music Performance Competition. It was written for flute and piano, with the orchestral accompaniment of strings and piano added later.
In the early 1930s, Martin became acquainted with Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique, which was to influence much of his subsequent work. Elements of the twelve-tone form can be heard in the Ballade, although the piece is largely tonal and Neoclassical in style. It poses many challenges for the performer: it is filled with wide harmonic leaps, which the performer must tackle while also maintaining a lyrical melodic line; and the work tests the full range of the instrument, not least with a memorable section for the low register, accompanied by an effective ostinato in the orchestra.
© Femke Colborne, 2013