The flute in our time


Derek Jones & Jerry Wong/Leigh Harrold

Move Records MD 3463

Another long-range view of Australian composition: that chamber music corner reserved for solo flute and flute-plus-piano works. This time, Jones keeps his oldest till last: Miriam Hyde‘s Flute Sonata of 1962. Jump forward 32 years for Johanna Selleck‘s Deja Vu, written for the composer herself as part of her master’s degree at the Victorian College of the Arts. From three years ago come Tom Henry‘s Sonata for flute and piano, written in memory of his music-loving father, which starts the disc; and a Sonatine for flute and piano by Linda Verrier, a Canadian-born writer recently settled in Australia and who has dedicated this score to Jones. Most recent in this collection, Rohan PhillipsInvention (V) was composed last year, another piece specifically for Jones (so far).

Each sonata has three movements, Henry’s being the most temporally substantial work at a little over 18 minutes, Hyde’s coming in 6 minutes shorter. All the piano parts are performed by Wong, except for the Verrier Sonatine where Harrold partners Jones. The other three works are single-movement units, both Selleck and Phillips speaking and communicating with assurance and a compression of structure and material that impress, not least for their individuality of utterance.

Hyde wrote her sonata just at the time when a group of young guns were bringing us all to a consciousness that Bartok was not the last word in modernity. Richard Meale had produced his confrontational Sonata for flute and piano in 1960; Sculthorpe, his Sonata for Viola and Percussion in the same year; Butterley’s Laudes appeared a year after Hyde’s work which was contemporaneous with George Dreyfus’ From within, looking out. Of course, a good deal of musical activity was continuing blithely along Hydean lines, but the creative situation had shifted pretty suddenly from its former, settled underpinnings.

Even Hyde’s movement titles come from a bygone era: Allegro giocoso, Andante pastorale, Allegro con spirito – all reflect an age that predates the British country/folk-song eruption of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Still, as this work demonstrates, she had a mastery of style and vocabulary that persisted throughout her career, this work coming from the long middle years of it. Although the Sonata is sited in G minor, no matter how hard she exerts herself, in her opening Allegro Hyde can’t stay away from the relative major and the only severe traces of minor come in a march-like repeated chord pattern that occurs in the exposition and the orthodox recapitulation. Things proceed in unexceptionable style with some lightly perky work for Jones and a pulse that doesn’t vary but seems to stick to the initial 2/4 throughout.

The second movement sounds rather heavy for a pastoral, Wong delivering his repeated quaver chords with fidelity if not much variety of attack. But the piece is a fairly simple, polished lyric where you can see clearly what use Hyde makes of her building blocks, be it a minor second dip, a descending pattern of two triplets, or a semiquaver-quaver-semiquaver. Much the same transparency applies to the rondo finale which ends, apart from a final flourish, with a reference to one of the preceding episodes. Yet again, the piece is in G minor but the dark shadings are applied with a light touch and this jig with its defining held quaver across the centre of a 6/8 bar is deftly utilised in a set of pages that flash several welcome sparks in a finely controlled, coherent realization from both musicians.

Henry’s sonata opens with a keening, regularly-paced flute solo notable for some ‘bent’ notes and a few contributions from Wong operating inside the piano for some of the time before both instruments settle into a kind of threnody. The composer calls this movement The elements; nothing to do with the periodic table or ballets by Delalande or Fery, but more a setting-out of the work’s material which at first presentation sounds like an orthodox step-by-step melody, moving into some rapid trills in both instruments. The ambience becomes more frenetic as the pace increases and the flute’s range moves into more expanded and angular territory, mirrored by the keyboard. Henry uses a language that is half-traditional in harmonic terms but has its dissonant moments. The excitement fades and the initial patterns – well, a few of them – re-emerge before a quiet, unresolved ending.

If anything, the second movement sounds more orthodox at its opening before moving to slightly more challenging ground and thicker part-writing. There is a sort of catch-and-release about these pages where disjunct leaps across the flute’s register and a dense keyboard part give way to more transparent writing. Weighty repeated chords and a declamatory outburst from the piano in an Ivesian Pelion-upon-Ossa climax ends this depiction of Inner worlds.

A genial trill-laden introduction sets up anticipation for the lead into a concluding 6/8 Presto in which Henry again oscillates between several languages melded into a satisfying entity. I wouldn’t call the melodic material memorable but then I find echoes of many another flute/piano duet in these pages – everything from Prokofiev through Poulenc to Ibert and even (probably unconscious) echoes of Hyde. Nonetheless, the movement in this fast section presented as segmented, the episodes overtly linked by recalls of the opening bars to the Presto but not quite cohesive enough; in two places, I thought that the forward impetus had halted for no good reason. But the sonata as a whole is an excellent showcase for flute, Jones showing few signs of stress despite some testing passages.

Low piano notes and a rising four note pattern dominate the first pages of Verrier’s Sonatine. The flute floats above this with an angular lyric before a partnership is established and the piece is underway and the cells expand and coalesce. Mind you, appearances are deceptive and, although you feel hat you have a handle on the various motives and themes, you haven’t: Verrier is a dab hand at transformation and suddenly interpolating new patterns and intervallic twists as she attempts a depiction of bird sounds.

A pause precedes a slower section that sounds like an old-fashioned Andantino, which doesn’t last long before the flute’s energy level rises in a virtuosic semiquaver flight, succeeded by a piano solo and a return to more calm territory that, as in Henry’s sonata, occupies an all-man’s-land, although Verrier is quite happy to wear her diatonic colours more often. She leads us to a calmly optimistic conclusion, notable for a sustained richly vibrato-ed single note from the flute while the piano growls in the depths. It’s a most interesting construct with several striking sections alongside others that sound like sheer hard work for Jones and Harrold.

In Selleck’s solo, we come across a flautist writing for herself with a highly informed knowledge of the instrument’s possibilities – and it shows. This is the most pointedly characteristic music on this album as the composer goes through a battery of techniques that are not heard in the other tracks here. Not just flutter-tonguing or percussive attacks, but we hear that extraordinary effect produced by forcing a repeated note out of its comfort zone in the first bar, as well as the flute’s ability to vault across its register with glancing acciaccature preceding a broad sustained note an octave or more away. Jones gives fine voice/air to Selleck’s use of fat minims that hang like ripe plums in medias res, only to be succeeded by rapid flurries that recur in this piece that exemplifies the lived experience of half-remembrances, or memories that only partly remain intact. At its best moments, Deja vu is riveting, explosive in the best sense: an energy-filled successor to some of the superlative flute solos that have peppered contemporary compositional activity since 1936’s Density 21.5.

To my ears, the most ‘advanced’ work on this CD is that by Rohan Phillips, Invention (V), subtitled Still Life and taking its impetus from a brief poem of that name by Antigone Kefala. A study in treble sonorities, Wong’s piano part is written on one stave and only once drops below the flute’s range. Unlike Selleck’s piece, this work is pretty chaste in its technical demands, its temper benign even if the two lines slash across each other at certain points. But the composer’s language is uncompromising, rising to stridency as he gives sound to the poet’s images of light on water and trees in their own symmetry. The score is almost continually flashing with brilliance, the effect eventually that of an impossibly note-rich carillon.

A fine addition to Jones’ series of CDs devoted to Australian flute music, much of them new and a good many tracks comprising older works that ought to be preserved or revived. Jones acknowledges the support given to him in this enterprise by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, in the new Southbank building of which he recorded this third volume.

Posted in CD