MAGIC OF FLUTE AND HARP
Ian Roach Hall, Scotch College
Sunday March 19, 2017
In the acoustic clarity of Scotch College’s music auditorium, violinist Wilma Smith began her annual recital series on Sunday afternoon with an interesting program that involved a group of fine musicians. Not that the music was intriguing because it was new; the second half comprised Beethoven’s early Serenade for flute, violin and viola while the recital finished with a luxurious masterpiece that rarely gets an airing because of the difficulties in assembling the necessary instruments: Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for harp, string quartet, flute and clarinet.
Well, perhaps claiming infrequency of performance due to unusual personnel is only half the matter. The score is an exercise in restraint and shading balance where the harp occupies central position in the action but depends on the associated pair of woodwind to observe the dynamic decencies.
Having brought the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s harpist Yinuo Mu on board for the event, Smith used her talents to the full. Mu took part in four of the five program constituents, thereby being the most hard-worked of the recital’s participants. Not that you had any impression of stress; this musician was as elegantly energetic in the Ravel as she was at the opening where I think most of us were hearing, for the first time, Eugene Goossens‘ Suite for flute, violin and harp. Written in 1914 but published mid-war in 1917, this three-movement work beguiles with its lush, non-saccharine impressionistic colour washes. With Smith on violin and the flute of Andrew Nicholson, this novelty impressed for an unaffected elegance; if not big on development, the three movements – Impromptu, Serenade, Divertissement – progressed by ramping up their activity level, the last movement a fast-paced gem of mild athleticism, its outer sections straddling a slower interlude with an unexpectedly Elgarian tang.
Goossens made full use of the information available to him through his harpist sisters, Marie and Sidonie, so that the instrument’s contributions fitted in to the prevailing texture and dominated it in turn. This composer made a considerable impression during his Sydney years when he was conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and directing the Sydney Conservatorium – a one-man (is there any other kind?) fiefdom, taken over after his disgrace by a relative mediocrity. Not that the impression he made was necessarily positive all the time: his own opera Judith might have given exposure to a young Joan Sutherland but its performances in Sydney were not resoundingly successful; despite his outstanding reputation with modern scores, his interpretations of orthodox repertoire could often irritate for their accelerated tempi. But this Suite shows an emotional command and sensitivity that was finely delineated by these expert interpreters.
Joseph Jongen‘s Deux pieces en trio for flute, cello and harp brought Anna Pokorny to the stage. Another late flower of Impressionism, these short bagatelles threw up some exquisite passages of play – a fine soaring passage at the octave for flute and cello in the Assez lent and, later, a similar moment in the temperamentally contrasted Allegro moderato.
Conte fantastique by Andre Caplet, a friend of Debussy, asks for harp and string quartet but, on this occasion, the double bass of Alexander Arai-Swale was added to the mix; I couldn’t see that he did much but reinforce Pokorny’s cello but it’s possible that I might have missed more subtle input. Compared to its predecessors on this program, Caplet’s score verges on the adventurous, but Mu’s instrument is the main protagonist in this extended scene illustrating part of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death short story. The score engages in grinding harmonic clusters and angular melodic gestures as the composer follows the story of a dissipated dance/orgy, complete with ominous clock chimes, before Death appears to level the revellers. For this extended scene, Smith took second violin while Zoe Freisberg did sterling service as first desk and Imants Larsens from the Adelaide Symphony generated a firm tenor line with his viola. Even if you were not addicted to program music, this piece proved engrossing – for its swirling range of colours, the urgent excitement of its progress, and the confidence of all involved, especially Mu who capped the experience with a chameleonic, driving cadenza that led into the concluding six bars.
Beethoven’s Serenade brought Smith, Nicholson and Larsens together in a combination of high interest, chiefly for the equanimity of the collaboration despite the sparseness of the composer’s texture. Nicholson’s flute remained impressive throughout the recital; his attack precise, articulation spot-on, all informed by a fluent approach to rhythm. Smith and Larsens complemented each other, the mellow violin contrasting with a more deliberate viola. But the ensemble impressed right from the unisons and rapid interplay of the Entrata before an amiable reading of the Tempo ordinario d’un menuetto, gifted with two splendid trios. Despite the difficulty of keeping one’s nose clean during the transparent Andante con variazioni, you had to listen hard to detect any pitch problems in those mellifluous pages, while the final two rapid movements showed an admirable deftness, especially in the infectious repetitions of the final Allegro‘s Mozartian main theme where violin and viola engaged in some subtle and unexpectedly courteous interweaving.
As for the concluding Ravel, Mu contributed a supple texture to the mix, taking her time with the interpolated cadenzas and showing an awareness of her primacy; after all, Ravel wrote the piece as a demonstration of the Erard’s new 1905 chromatic instrument. The composite sound of the septet in this hall’s acoustic acquired a remarkable warmth, even in soft shimmering passages for the string quartet, but the outstanding feature of this version was an absence of hysteria or whipping-up of excitement through forcing the pace. The Allegro followed its path with a poise that the composer would have appreciated, notably Mu’s solo two bars after Number 11, the explosion at the tres anime point at Number 17, and the gradual acceleration 18 bars from the end. Rather than over-pointing the work’s elation, these players opened windows on to its transparency and festively rhapsodic sparkle.