Quintet for flute and string quartet
1999 Australian Festival of Chamber Music
James Buswell, Michele Walsh, Dimity Hall & Anthony Gault (violins)
Theodore Kuchar & Randolph Kelly (violas)
Judith Glyde & Carol Ou (cellos)
Michael Gurt & Ian Munro (pianos)
Olga Shylayeva (flute)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: June 2001
CD No: NAXOS 8.559071
Walter Piston (1894-1976), American born and trained (Harvard), has an assured place in American music – his ’classic’ Second Symphony, also the Fourth and Sixth, assure that; if they didn’t, his ballet, The Incredible Flutist, would. In addition his books on Harmony, Counterpoint and Orchestration are standards of their type. Essentially neo-classical in terms of structure, Piston’s formality belies his rhythmic thrust and long-breathed melodies – music with a definite heart and soul.
Naxos already has a fine CD of Piston’s two violin concertos (8.559003) – played and conducted by two of this current release’s artists, Neville Buswell and Theodore Kuchar – and this new issue of chamber music is very welcome. Avoiding any of Piston’s five string quartets – hopefully not for too long – this CD presents not only a variety of ensembles but also a wide range of emotions.
Piston’s French influence – he studied for a time with Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger in Paris – is most evident in the flute quintet, a delightful piece of graceful interplay and tender expression; it’s highlight is the spectral scherzo – a Haydnesque lightness prismed through Bartokian night colours. This 1942 piece is highly contrasted with the 1964 Sextet, a long slow movement followed by two shorter, faster ones. The long opening threnody is very personal, quietly anguished, the long lines fractured in their pursuit of unison; this is a remarkable movement, one searching out inner torment. However fleet the second movement, the mood remains dark, the harmonies uneasy; the finale, the most ’orchestral’ in terms of sonority, suggests a lifting of shadows but remains troubled. This is an impeccably crafted, emotionally involving piece of real quality.
From the same year, the Piano Quartet is another work of haunting expression. Serious and intimate, it relays the composer’s most inward thoughts – especially in the piano’s ’lonely’ solos. The rhythmically intricate finale is an admirable foil for the preceding privacy.
The Piano Quintet, from 1949, is a mellifluous piece in which all the instruments contribute to the harmonic pulse – this is friendly chamber music, written in concord, perkily alive, duskily suggestive, Faurean in its confidentiality, and pure Americana in the ’outdoors’ finale with its can-whistle tunes.
Piston’s concentrated forms and pithy invention do not eschew either wit or sustained depth of utterance – emotional coherence breeds longer structures. These very sympathetic (studio) performances are vividly recorded and can be heartily recommended.