Aquarium [world premiere]
Deus miseratur nostri
Benedicta sit sancta Trinitas
De la Salle
Bavardage [world premiere]
Dame, de qui toute ma joie vient
Rose, liz, printemps
Ave Regina coelorum
[Catherine Fleming, Celia Ireland, Fiona Russell & Ian Wilson recorders]
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 9 April, 2003
Venue: Purcell Room, London
On the face of it, a concert of music for recorder quartet seems a tough proposition for those not already attracted to the medium as a mainstay of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. The Flautadors think differently – their intent being to revitalise the repertoire from a contemporary perspective, in much the same way that Fretwork has opened up the viol consort to composers over the last 15 years. Indeed, balance between ’old’ and ’new’ music in the present concert was noticeably in favour of the latter, a likely statement of intent which augurs well for this enterprising ensemble.
The early pieces were themselves well chosen to illustrate the variety in compositional approaches from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The formal and expressive symmetries of Machaut’s songs are a reminder of the self-sufficiency of his vocal writing in an instrumental context, a facet intensified by the enriched harmony and intricate part-writing of the Dufay antiphon. As realised here, Robert Johnson’s setting of Psalm 67 had a noble austerity foreshadowing the liturgical music of Byrd, while the insistent overlapping of parts in the Palestrina motet took on a textural translucency very different from the vocal original.
The contemporary pieces were strongly contrasted as to idiom. Ryohei Hirose introduces playing techniques and timbral subtleties associated with the shakuhachi into Idyll 1 (1976), its transitions between ambient vibration and ensemble interplay articulated by simple but effective choreography by the players. In Aquarium, the first of two pieces commissioned for the concert, Alastair Stout utilised the quartet as a pipe organ of Ligetian sonorities and polyrhythmic conceits – exotic as much in sound as in the specimens it might depict. Pari Intervallo (1976) actually existed as an organ composition before Arvo Pärt rearranged it for recorders, its bell-like resonance and consonant simplicity captured to persuasive effect.
Leo Chadburn had the musicians playing two recorders apiece – an image more often identified with saxophonists of the post-bop era! – to recreate the multiple stopping of the four violins for which De la Salle (2001) was originally conceived. Likeable as a process piece – as, in its very different way, was Karel van Steenhoven’s Wolken (1984), the ’clouds’ of the title evoked by a melody line which is dispersed amid amorphous textures in a novel reinvention of cantus firmus technique. Inherent Patterns (1996) by Stefan Thomas is now a staple item of the modern recorder repertoire. The title refers to the collective playing technique associated with the Amadinda (a Ugandan instrument akin to the xylophone), but medieval practice is again evoked in the hocket-like patterning which ensures continuity through rapid, and often diverse textures.
The highlight of the concert, however, had come at the beginning of the second half – with the first performance of Bavardage (2002) by David Murphy. At 13 minutes, it was by far the longest item, but maintained momentum through the rhythmic velocity and harmonic focus derived from the initial motivic cell – as succinct as it was memorable – which returns in various guises to provide moments of stasis. Murphy characterises the discourse as representing idle chatter, and the writing at times recalls the ’futile answers’ put forward by the flute ensemble in Ives’s The Unanswered Question – at the close, evanescing into silence to breathtaking effect. Moreover, one was rarely conscious of the recorder quartet as a medium during the course of the piece – a tribute to its inherent musical strengths and to the skill of the players in realising them.
Played on a variety of instruments, ranging from the garklein sopranino to the great bass recorder, this was an enlightening and entertaining evening which gave some idea of the possibilities – both existing and waiting to be explored – of the medium. Clearly The Flautadors has a future in realising and promoting them, hopefully building up a large following in the process.