Chiff power

DANCES AND DELIGHTS

Monash University Flute Ensemble

MD 3421

Most of the content in this collection is light, either by intention or happenstance.  Of the 15 tracks, several were commissioned by or arranged for the Monash University Flute Ensemble: David Henderson’s three-movement Consortium, Tony Gould’s A New Spring DayPortrait de l’homme de commun by James Mustafa, Evening Prayer by Houston Dunleavy, and Carolyn Morris’ Oceana.

The ensemble’s director, Peter Sheridan, commissioned one of the other works heard here: Visions of Grace by Adrienne Albert, and two works enjoy their premiere recording:  Gould’s substantial piece – the longest on the disc – and Daniel Dorff’s Fireworks.  Filling out the edges comfortably is a group of works from all over the place: Arlen’s Over the Rainbow,  a Danse fantastique by Shostakovich, James Horner’s My Heart Will Go On, and the album’s bracing opener: Valsette by Danish 19th century all-rounder Joachim Anderson; this was originally a (italics) flute/piano Scherzino  but is heard here in an arrangement for flute quartet (I think, although it sounds as though more than that number are involved).

An agreeable if derivative stand-alone work is Rika Ishage’s Brindavan which is played by a sextet comprising piccolo, three C instruments, an alto and a bass.

The whole thing makes for a noteworthy essay in an arcane field, in as much as you will rarely hear so many flutes together outside of a university’s encouraging environment.  The combinations vary as the tracks fly past on a moderately sized 58 minutes of recording.  Along with the multiple flute personnel, Gould plays piano for his own piece while Move’s own Rhys Boak fleshes out the Titanic melody.

The Valsette gets matters off to a flying start with excellent ensemble work, setting up the prevailing sound ambience with some certainty.  This massed flute flavour suggests an organ, if an unusually uniform one, in the sound’s delivery: a touch of the chiff plosion before each note.  But the ambience is more individual in colour than you get on the keyboard instrument.  Still, there’s nothing here to keep you guessing; just a simple ternary format with a bouncy vivacity in the outer sections.

The next flute-specific composition is Henderson’s construct comprising Prelude, Processional and Romance.  This score involves piccolo, C, alto, bass and contrabass flutes with the lower instruments getting little exposure melodically in the agreeable opening movement which has an interesting opening gesture even if the consequent development sounds laboured.  The central movement is suitably measured, rising to a skirling climax, having got there by a gradual crescendo which, because of the plentiful unisons involved, shows some cracks in the ensemble’s tuning.  Henderson’s final piece strikes me as the least original of the three with an unprepossessing strolling main theme and a touch of awkwardness just before the last reprise.

American writer Albert scored her Visions of Grace for pairs of altos and basses with a contrabass bringing up the rear.  The work begins with a pleasant harmonically eliding setting of Amazing Grace which strolls into something remarkably like Loch Lomond, then Shenandoah and Red River Valley  .  .  .  there may be a couple more in there but I got confused with the bridge passages.  It’s a smoothly compiled miscellany that contrives to sound atmospherically coherent and the rendition also impresses for its fluency.

For some unfathomable reason, I was expecting something brazen from Mustafa’s work, like Copland’s Symphony No. 3 fanfare – possibly because of the title’s last three words – but this work is heavy on the timbre of low flutes, although written for what the composer calls a ‘modern classical flute orchestra’.   A certain amount of chordal shape-shifting, possibly the product of the composer’s wide experience in leading, performing in and conducting jazz ensembles,  precedes a simple flute melody in what I believe is a D flat Major modality;  the selection of which key might go some way to explaining the salty, slightly off-pitch  sound of the ensemble in the work’s brief second half, particularly a high-flying piccolo.

Young Japanese composer Ishige writes that her work takes its title from a harem in India and she attempts in her two movements to suggest a lush garden and fountains.  Piccolo Grace Wiedemann, C flutes Thomas Thorpe, Catherine King and Isobel McManus, alto Steph Leslie and bass Jazmine Morris perform this score which would have impressed more if people had paid stricter attention to tuning; during the languorous stretches of the first movement, your teeth are set on edge by some un-centred passages – and yet the post-Debussyan text is not that taxing.  The more lively second movement also features some moments that might have gained from re-recording, including a segment that juxtaposes piccolo and bass although it’s hard to pick out the latter as the middle-range accompaniment is over-hefty.  Still, the composer’s aim is lightly accomplished and these four-square flourishes and curvettes represent a congenial if unadventurous take on the impressionism of Jets d’eaux.

Dunleavy’s piece is a slow meander for an unspecified body, something like a four-square hymn although its harmonic language is ear-stretching, more sophisticated than most of the other tracks on this CD.   In fact, because of its measured, regular pace, the piece’s main interest comes from its polyphony and yet you are reminded all too often of old-time B. Mus. exercises in counterpoint.  For all that, the performance is sure-footed and a reassuring return to form from the Monash players.

Morris originally wrote her Oceana for chamber orchestra; this transcription employs a pair of piccolos, 4 C flutes, 3 altos, 2 bass and a contrabass.  The opening sees a return to the slightly off-pitch product that has bedevilled former tracks, most notable in moments where piccolo and C flutes are working in unison or at the octave.  The work is a pleasant and calm seascape where the sun is continually out and the waves are all benign and negotiated with major-key tillers.   Even when you expect a change at about the 4-minute mark when a hiatus is reached and the prevailing texture moves for a moment to the bass instruments, the atmosphere is still all calm-sea-and-prosperous-voyage and moves only for a second or two outside its happy F Major framework.

Senior American composer Dorff wrote Fireworks for a 2016 flute convention sponsored by the Flute Society of Washington.   It features lots of rushing upward scales, very exposed piccolo lines and a wealth of syncopation that is not quite deftly realised by this group.  Certainly, the composer’s intention was to set up a brilliant sound scape for experts to toss off, yet the impression given here is often of a prodding at the piece rather than a hurtling through its pages with sure-footed certainty.

Mel Orriss’ treatment of the Judy Garland show-stopper from The Wizard of Oz has a long preamble before hitting the main melody but the flute ensemble is given plenty of amplitude and – as in all the best treatments – everyone gets a guernsey.  The temptation to embellish is hardly resisted but never gets in the way of a great tune – once it gets started.

Horner’s lyric opens with an Irish whistle solo, before the massed ensemble enters and works through a full-bellied arrangement under the direction of Jazmine Morris.  The tune’s progress is strong on polemic before the whistle returns and brings the Hollywood sentiment under control and reminds you of the premise behind the film: a class-crossing love story, not a bloated disaster extravaganza.

The Shostakovich Danse fantastique comes from the early four-movement Suite for Two Pianos of 1922.  It’s not saying anything new to observe that most of the original’s percussive bite is gone in this arrangement by Melbourne educator/flautist Carolyn Grace. The piece opens with plenty of sprightly verve but the more instruments that join in – and there are quite a few – the less assurance in the chording and rhythmic synchronicity.  As with several other tracks on this CD, the middle section lapses into hard labour and the final page is lacking in the expected brittle buoyancy that two pianists bring to this section.

Gould begins his piece with a slow-moving hymn-like prelude which melds into a sequence for low flutes, elaborating and exploring the piano’s opening motives.  The motion accelerates with the arrival of a piccolo before the initial restraint takes over again with Gould’s return for another solo meditation.  The flute choir follows with a brisk optimistic passage of play which could have been honed into more crisp delivery as some of the harmonic changes seem scatter-gun, and the articulation from alto flutes down is not as exact as it should be.

In fact, the finest moments of Gould’s work come in the last piano solo that concludes the work, a pillow of restful chords under a nomadic melody line that suggests the work’s title with more efficacy than the wind interludes.  As a sound picture, the work is non-specific; like Beethoven’s Pastoral, ‘more the expression of feeling than painting’.  Yet, along with the composer-pianist’s elegance of delivery, the piece is infused with a consistent and quiet sense of satisfaction, a placid delight.

So this CD is a real miscellany, a showcase in some ways for Peter Sheridan’s players who, when they’re on song, make a satisfying contribution to a rarely-heard corner of Australian musical practice.  If you’re prepared to forgive the occasional awkwardness in delivery, this disc holds sufficiently worthy accomplished tracks.

 

 

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