Shadow Dances British Works for Flute Chandos

Shadow Dances – British Works for Flute
York Bowen (1884-1961)
Miniature Suite (1907)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Suite de Ballet (c.1914)
Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)
Sonata Op.13 (1939)
William Alwyn (1905-1985)
Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Four Pieces (1911-12)
Howard Ferguson (1908 – 1999)
Three Sketches (1932–52) 
York Bowen (1884-1961)
Sonata Op.120 (1946)
Adam Walker (flute)
Huw Watkins (piano)
rec. 2022, Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20265 [77]

Recitals of British chamber music for violin or cello, even clarinet and oboe are relatively common.  Those for flute are far rarer so this new disc would be welcome even before considering just how beautifully it is played by flautist Adam Walker and pianist Huw Watkins.  Furthermore the composers featured are well-known even if these particular pieces-for non-flautists at least-are not.  

The programme is well planned and generous and is book-ended by the two longest works here both by York Bowen.  The disc opens with the 16:29 three movement Miniature Suite of 1907 and is completed by the 19:15 Sonata Op.120 from nearly forty years later of 1946.  Lewis Foreman contributes his usual insightful and helpful liner note and in that he outlines the central paradox of Bowen’s creative life.  In 1906 he was one of the young lions of the British music scene just out of college but already with a presence and public acclaim both as virtuoso piano soloist and composer his contemporaries such as Bax, Coates, Ireland or Holst could not yet claim.  And the reason is easy to hear; the suite is well-crafted, melodically and harmonically attractive if not strikingly memorable but certainly shows great promise.  Wind forward four decades and the sonata shows itself to be well-crafted, melodically and harmonically attractive if not strikingly memorable but almost stubbornly traditional.  Part of the reason for the recent upturn in Bowen’s stature and his presence in the current catalogue is because at a century’s distance such considerations of ‘modernity’ (not something applicable to any of the music on this disc!) fall away.

Returning to the Suite, its three movements are Humoresque, Romance and a closing Scherzo-Presto.  As the title suggests these are three contrasting salon-esque pieces quite beautifully played by Walker and Watkins.  A mark of Bowen’s status in 1907 was that the work was written for Albert Fransella-the leading virtuoso of the day and Henry Wood’s principal in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra-the Bax Four Pieces were also written at his behest.  One observation I would make about both Bowen works is that other composers represented here manage to create music that somehow manages to be both shorter yet more substantial.  So, for example, the 7:43 Alwyn Sonata which lasts in its entirety just a few seconds longer than the Suite’s Romance is so much more concentrated and sparing in its musical argument and gestures.  Bowen tends to waffle-albeit in a rather lovely if rather unchallenging way.  Especially so when played with Walker’s radiant tone and musical sensitivity.  Next to the Bowen suite is a chip off Vaughan Williams’ block-his 6:06 four movement Suite de Ballet.  The liner dates the work from 1914 but the manuscript-another of those edited by Roy Douglas-only came to light in the composer’s papers after his death.  The commissioner of this work was the French flautist Louis Fleury.  For such a slight work it is intriguing to hear how Vaughan Williams manages to put his own distinctive musical stamp on each dance-like movement and again how he creates a distinctive mood and character for these brief pieces with such effective musical economy.  According to Foreman all of the melodic material is original but it does sound as if it has a folksong origin-especially the trippingly infectious Humoresque and closing Passepied.  Again Walker and Watkins are adept at finding exactly the right light and elegant spirit for this insubstantial but very attractive music.  

Lennox Berkeley Sonatina Op.13 was originally written for treble recorder accompanied at the premiere on harpsichord but it has become better known in its flute and piano incarnation.  Foreman rightly points to the French influence that colours so many of Berkeley’s scores.  He is one of those composers who, for all his elegant and well-crafted music, has become marginalised since his death in 1989.  A quick check of the BBC Proms archive shows nothing by Berkeley in the last decade and nothing major for a lot longer.  Yet even in a work of relatively modest scale such as this Sonatina Berkeley’s ability to fashion effective and memorable material from essentially simple motifs is impressive. Berkeley’s affinity for the flute is clear too-worth remembering his highly effective orchestration of the Poulenc Sonata.  Given that William Alwyn’s early professional career was as flautist-like Walker-in the LSO, it comes as no surprise that possibly of all the works played here it is his Sonata that more clearly exploits the full range of technical and expressive possibilities on the instrument.  This work is another minor triumph of compact scale, expressive concision and technical skill.  Lasting just 7:43 and in one continuous movement (albeit in three clearly defined sections) this is packed with incident and interest.  Perhaps most notable-and quite brilliantly played here-is the finale which takes a fugal subject and gives the first two voices-at an octave’s displacement-to the flute.  That this works as well as it does is a tribute to both composer and performer.   Alwyn wrote four significant works for solo flute which have been recorded on Dutton by Philippa Davies and the Nash Ensemble-that is a disc I do not know but would be interested to hear in the light of Walker’s fine performance of the Sonata.

Something of a disappointment is the Bax Four Pieces.  Not for a second is this the fault of the performance which is every bit as skilled and sophisticated as one could hope for.  In essence this is Bax at his less inspired.  Foreman usefully relates the work’s genesis.  It sprang from Bax’s abortive ballet Tamara that he hoped to have performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes who were a sensation when they performed in London in 1911.  This inspired Bax during one of his trips to Ireland to write what Graham Parlett describes as his longest score-a 2 Act Ballet with a Prologue containing 30 musical numbers.  The original work exists in piano score only and was never orchestrated.  The project came to nothing but Bax mined the unused music for several later scores including this group of Four Pieces when approached by Albert Fransella some five years later.  Given that Harriet Cohen accompanied at the 1916 premiere hard not to imagine that Bax was not adverse to offering her another musical love token.  For anyone expecting the highly chromatic emotional convolutions of Bax’s most famous scores this will come across as quite simplistic almost naive.  Not that that is a bad thing as other works in this recital have shown but just that the actual level of inspiration-for Bax-is burning quite low.  The third movement Naiad is both the longest and the most impressive.  This clearly places the score in the phase of pre-War impressionism that imbues Bax’s scores before he immersed himself in the darker turbulent world of Celtic mysticism.  Certainly you can hear Bax emulating the French ballet scores that were so influential when performed by the Ballets Russes.  Walker and Watkins have exactly the right measure of this seductively languorous music.  The score was not published until the late 1940’s by which time Bax’s original inspiration had all but burnt out so there is an extra layer poignant nostalgia for an earlier time when music poured from him.

Howard Ferguson famously stopped composing in 1959 (he lived for another 40 years) insisting “I had said all I wished to say.”   Part of what he did want to say are the Three Sketches spread across some twenty years between 1932–52.  They are absolute gems-just 4:58 for the three pieces combined.  In many ways-along with the Alwyn-this is the work that impresses me most on this disc.  There is a gentle tender quality to this music-slight in scale and light in texture but profound in expressive warmth-that is utterly compelling.  Walker and Watkins bring a beautifully poised intensity to this performance that is a joy to listen to.  Certainly alongside the somewhat verbose Bowen Sonata that completes the disc it is easy to hear how Bowen for all his undoubted talent and deep understanding achieves less emotional impact while taking nearly four times as long as Ferguson.  That said, in its own right this Sonata is an attractive work and one presented in the best possible light here.  There is again a performance on Dutton which I have not heard.

This is a very fine, well played and well recorded recital of unusual British repertoire.  There are no major masterpieces here but all the music is attractive at least and several of the works offer more than that.  A typically fine Chandos presentation that British music enthusiasts will be delighted to hear.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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