This recital of music for flute and piano brings together ten works by eight British composers. Given that all of these composers lived a substantial part of their lives in the twentieth century (and in five cases, all of their lives) one might well anticipate an underlying stylistic kinship or, at any rate, appreciable core values. Indeed, what emerges is a colourful evocation of Britishness, in so far as one might be drawn into dispensing such an inadequate and imperfect generalisation.
Hamilton Harty’s In Ireland , with which the disc starts, assembles music of swiftly shifting moods and immediately gives an insight into the wonderfully nuanced tone-colours of which flautist Kenneth Smith is capable. He is sympathetically partnered by paul Rhodes at the piano. The recording’s natural, unfussy sound has an impact that might be considered the musical equivalent to a private viewing – a recital to which you alone have been invited, perhaps with a glass or two of port thrown in for good measure.
Edward German’s two contributions – a small-scale Intermezzo and a more substantially conceived three-movement Suite – have an enchanting sentimentality that, for many, will bear out the vision of pastoral lusciousness captured so delightfully in the painting by Robert Cummings chosen for the album cover: River Exe at Cowley . The opening movement of the Suite , ‘Valse Gracieuse’, is a real winner, caught with great panache and sophistication by Smith. The ‘Gypsy Dance’ explores a variety of moods, and its will-o’-the-wisp conclusion epitomises perfectly the entertaining time the duo must have had while recording these works (I understand the collaboration now extends to some 20 years).
It is not hard to see why Michael Head’s work, By the River in Spring , was selected as the title track for the album, since its whimsical charm undoubtedly draws from the composer’s boundless instinct for lyricism; I felt this to be a memorable heartfelt reading. Alwyn’s Flute Sonata, written in 1948, waited 50 years for a performing edition to emerge (courtesy of veteran flautist Christopher Hyde-Smith), and although a few questions sill remain as to the precise structural assembly of the work, the performance here undoubtedly presents a convincing overview. The work ranks as among the more serious music on the recording, not that there is an absence of lighter, more fanciful material here also.
Speaking of a light-hearted vein, Eirie Cherie , written by Havelock Nelson specifically for the duo in 1990, earns its keep with its relaxed rhythmic swagger, as does Nelson’s pithy transcription of In Venezuela , originally conceived as a work for cello and harp.
Thomas Dunhill’s Valse Fantasia has a certain charisma to it too, and the duo does much to distil its blithe character, although I can’t help feeling that the piece outstays its welcome a little and is perhaps more agreeable to play that to listen to, even with that glass of port.
Kenneth Leighton’s Flute Sonata, a revision of his Violin Sonata no. 1, is packaged in three movements without a break; the central movement (the most protracted of the three) is effectively and dextrously caught here; a delicious suspension of time and space that capitalises upon Smith’s far-reaching sense of line. The Moonmaiden’s Dance by Stanford Robinson is a most handsome and picturesque piece too, despite its relatively diminutive stature, and Smith’s sound here is particularly worthy of appreciation, with playing of flawless deportment.
This is a recording of considerable interest and sincerity that does much to enliven our awareness of British flute music.