There can hardly be a more magical-sounding combination than flute and piano as this two CD set amply demonstrates. It also shows how widely ranging and diverse is the musical language of this assemblage of British composers some of whom are hardly known and unfairly neglected.
Malcolm Arnold is not one of those and his Sonata for Flute and Piano which was premiered by James Galway, to whom it was dedicated, in 1977 is a captivating work. It’s full of virtuosic moments but also crammed with musical ideas of the highest order. From its opening our attention is gripped by the mysterious air created by the flute’s main theme while the piano stalks it in a threatening fashion. Then suddenly a calmer atmosphere asserts itself and the two instruments are harmoniously intertwined with shared material until the main themes return. This finally gives way to a relaxed and gentle ending. The slow movement is lyrically beautiful with the flute holding you with a mesmeric melody. This weaves its spell upon you while the piano’s role is to inject a counterpoised and sometimes almost percussive contrast. The joyful concluding movement is Arnold at his typical fun-loving best with a jazzy edge dominating.
Granville Bantock is a name one knows but not well enough. What a shame that is when you hear the sheer quality of the music on offer here. Written in 1930, the year he was knighted, Pagan Poem is a deliciously tuneful piece that shows off the flute’s many wonderful qualities. Peter Lamb is a name that is new to me and his Sonatina for Flute and Piano is a wonderful work to serve as an introduction. It is interesting to read his programme note in which he self-deprecatingly says that it is “… a lightweight work … presenting no problems to contemporary ears and designed simply to give pleasure to both the performers and their audience”. That is enough to endear him and his music to me. I was also interested to read that he wished to “echo the exuberance and variety of expression I so admire in many French writers”. Indeed it has many of the qualities that one associates with French music; a kind of puckish fanciful whimsy. He likens the final flourish that ends the work to the opening of Poulenc’s Sonata which he says he hopes he would have enjoyed. I’m sure he would have.
Cyril Scott ‘s The Ecstatic Shepherd makes you wish to hear more of his music as this piece for solo flute is simply gorgeous. The same can be truthfully said about Kenneth Leighton’s Serenade in C . Reading that he composed it when he was only 20, and even though he revised it four years later, it stands as testimony to a composer gifted with natural talent. It was sad to read that it had lain forgotten for almost forty years after he’d sent it for appraisal to the then principal flautist of the Philharmonia Orchestra. That’s the same orchestra that the soloist here, Kenneth Smith, has been principal solo flautist with these past 27 years. Peter Lamb is quoted in the booklet notes with a highly accurate and telling description of the work.
It was a joy to discover the music of John Ranish whose name was completely unknown to me. His delightful Sonata in B minor is one of a series of twenty he wrote for German Flute with thorough bass that were published in 1735 and 1744. This one is the third of the set of twelve from 1744. It is then back to the future from the eighteenth century to the twentieth with a work by the prodigiously talented Richard Rodney Bennett, his Summer Music . Bennett was equally at home writing and performing music for film and TV — including for an episode of Dr. Who and for the film Murder on the Orient Express — and jazz, famously acting as an accompanist for the likes of Cleo Laine, Marion Montgomery and Claire Martin. The interesting thing is that despite his abilities in all these genres he never descended into crossover. His music remained rooted in whatever genre he was writing in. Summer Music is well named for it simply shines with a feeling of sunlight in its melodic lines — a gloriously uplifting experience. The middle movement, subtitled Siesta , would be the perfect accompaniment to a relaxing afternoon in a hammock in a beautiful English garden.
Moving on to the second disc we have a lovely work by William Mathias representing Wales with his Sonatina . This was written in 1953 yet was inexplicably unpublished for over thirty years and unperformed until 1986. Its lively opening movement fairly races along, demanding much from both musicians. The central Andante Cantabile offers a short rest before the final Allegro Vivace picks up the pace again in a breathlessly propulsive dash for the finishing line. Although short, Eugene Goossens ‘ The Breath of Ney is thoroughly charming. It successfully creates an air of mystery in keeping with its Middle Eastern influence. The Ney is an ancient Persian flute which can be heard played by multi-instrumentalist Avi Adir on YouTube; well worth the detour.
As I have said above, I had not come across the composer Peter Lamb before and I feel chastened by that. Combining a busy career as a composer with music administration — he was Deputy Manager of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra — he composed many works including a Duologue for oboe and piano, a String Quartet, Concerto for viola and string orchestra, Wind Quintet and many unaccompanied choral works. His Sonata for Flute and Piano is a beautiful and quintessentially ‘English’ work redolent of all that is best in British music. Lamb, in words that bring to mind those he used concerning his Sonatina for Flute and Piano (see above), said of this work that he wished to add to the repertoire of an increasingly popular instrument. He “… hoped (that it) would bring pleasure to performer and listener alike.” There is no doubt that it scores highly on both counts. I can also admit that Thomas Dunhill is another composer whose name was unknown to me. Although it sounds as if it might be from the seventeenth century he was born in 1877 and his Suite for Flute and Piano also falls into the category of spellbindingly and charmingly evocative music. It is instantly appealing with a superbly flowing nature. As the booklet notes observe it is both suitably challenging yet ‘accessible to younger players offering them a complete and mature concert piece to perform’.
Howard Blake is best known for his score for Channel 4’s 1982 film The Snowman and especially the song Walking in the Air . However, with over 650 works to his credit there is plenty more that should capture our attention among which is his Elegy , a re-working for flute and piano of the slow movement from his Clarinet Concerto. This works perfectly for the beguiling qualities of the flute. Coming to the final work on this 2 CD set we have the première recording of Edwin York Bowen ‘s Sonata written in 1946 but unperformed until this recording was made in 1992. That fact is surprising since it is considered ‘… one of the most substantial and well written works for the flute by a British composer …’ as the booklet notes point out. At almost 18 minutes long this brilliantly virtuosic three-movement work captivates the listener at every turn. This can be felt from its expressive opening movement through its wonderfully restful and lyrically beautiful slow movement, so very typically English, to its energetic and scintillating concluding finale that shows off the playing of both musicians so very effectively.
Both Kenneth Smith who is a true wizard on the flute and Paul Rhodes, a equal partner in every way are perfect vehicles through which to show off all that is best in these British compositions for flute and piano. This set is one to cherish and enjoy forever. The only flaw is in the various mistakes and misprints between cover and booklet including Goossens’ date of death being given as being 1952 on the cover and the correct date of 1962 in the booklet.