SELECTED WORKS FOR FLUTE, CELLO AND PIANO
Just as Astor Piazzolla stood to the Tango in Argentina, so in a sense does the Russian, Ukrainian-born Nikolai Kapustin stand to Jazz in Russia, speaking jazz as his natural language and seeking to extend its role in both popular and concert music. Kapustin was born in Gorlovka, Ukraine in 1937 and studied piano at the Moscow Conservatory with the great Alexander Goldenweiser (friend of Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Tolstoy), graduating from his class in 1961. Though his training was thorough and traditional in the Russian classical manner, Kapustin had been interested in jazz from his teens, and already in the 1950s he had formed a jazz quintet, and played with Yuri Saulsky’s Central Artists’ Club Big Band in Moscow. Later, he toured throughout the USSR with the Oleg Lundstrem Jazz Orchestra. He has been a prolific composer, principally for solo piano though there are also concertos, orchestral works and chamber music. Despite the obvious (and infectious) jazzy feel of his music, Kapustin views himself as a composer rather than a jazz musician. He is on record as saying ‘I was never a jazz musician. I never tried to be a real jazz pianist, but I had to do it because of the composing. I’m not interested in improvisation – and what is a jazz musician without improvisation? All my improvisations are written out, of course, so they became much better; it improved them.’ Kapustin’s works, then, though they may occasionally sound like improvisations, are fully notated, fully developed compositions in his own distinctive jazz style, which distils elements from such jazz greats as Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner, with whom Kapustin feels a close affinity. Kapustin wrote his Trio for flute, cello and piano, Op.86 in 1998: it was at that time the first chamber work he had written for more than two players, and has since become one of his most popular works outside of his solo piano output. There are three movements. The first is an energetic affair, seemingly improvisatory but in fact working out its themes and motifs both thoroughly and fantastically, with walking basses, hypnotic ostinatos and also excursions and side-turnings that give all the instruments solo spots and the chance to assume various characters. The languidly nostalgic opening of the central slow movement introduces a theme which remains the principal focus of the music, varied in turn by all three instruments; after a slightly faster and more capricious central section, the theme returns for further romantic treatment before the end. The finale is a breezy, highly rhythmic workout for all three players, containing the most virtuosic writing in the work and rounding it off with an insouciant and irresistible display of animal vitality.
‘His music is neo-classic, but threatened with modernism’, was the curious comment that the critic André Coeuroy applied to Fauré’s younger contemporary Philippe Gaubert (1879–1941). Gaubert was a refined and civilized member of the Impressionist movement in France who is chiefly remembered – though he wrote in many genres – by his compositions for the flute, his own instrument: at the Paris Conservatoire in the 1890s he studied with the legendary flautist Paul Taffanel (1844–1908) and during his career served as principal flautist in several of the Paris orchestras – eventually becoming, like Taffanel, Professor of Flute at the Paris Conservatoire.
The Pièce Romantique was composed in 1904 and is redolent of the lyric charm that was Gaubert’s speciality, in music that may remind us at one moment of Fauré, at the next of Debussy, and yet retains a certain politesse of its own. Solo cello, against a chordal piano accompaniment, gives out the soulful main theme. The melody is taken up by the flute and extended in duet with the cello, the music rising to an ecstatic, pastoral climax. The flute is to the fore in the central episode, which has something of the air of an antique dance. The cello is the subordinate partner and abetter here, but it leads us, via a little mini-cadenza, into a brief, elaborated and embellished return of the opening theme before the movement dies away in a mood of eventide contentment.
The romantic ambience of the music of Robert Schumann (1810–1856) makes a striking contrast to Kapustin’s jazz cool. His Adagio and Allegro in A flat major, Op.70, was in fact conceived for horn and piano – and specifically the more agile valved horn, of which Schumann was an early champion, rather than the natural horn of Waldhorn that was still in use when he wrote his work (and which would still be much favoured by Schumann’s younger contemporary Brahms). This is one of a cluster of works for wind instruments written in 1849. At this time Schumann had the idea of composing substantial works of so-called Hausmusik that amateur players could use to further their skills at home, though the Adagio and Allegro presupposes an extremely skilled amateur: this is a notable display-piece whose range of chromatic notes shows it was intended from the first for the newer type of horn. As was his practice with his other wind-instrument pieces, Schumann published alternative versions for strings, either violin, viola or cello with piano: it is the last we hear on this disc.
Requiring considerable virtuosity in its concluding portion, and the ability to project dreamy Romantic feeling in its opening (the piece was originally entitled Romanza und Allegro), this is a perfect two-part structure, almost a Schumann trademark, of a kind which he explored throughout his instrumental oeuvre. The Adagio (actually marked Langsam, mit innigen Ausdruck) may remind us of one of Schumann’s more wistful songs, and requires stamina to sustain the lyrical phrases. The Allegro (actually marked Rasch und feurig) is a vigorous rondo, impulsive and indeed fiery in mood, using the full range of the instrument in rapid figuration, which alternates this vivacious music with slower, more lyrical episodes, notably an Etwas ruhiger in B major that develop motifs first heard in the Adagio, thus binding the diptych into a unity.
The extended, bravura Fantaisie Brillante on themes from Bizet’s Carmen was composed in 1900 by the flautist and composer François Borne (1840 - 1920), who was for many years principal flautist in the orchestra of the Grand Theatre at Bordeaux, eventually becoming professor of flute in the Conservatoire at Toulouse. Borne devoted much of his time to developing the design of the flute, writing articles to publicize his innovations; he had a share in the invention of many devices to improve the Boehmsystem flute still in use today, including the split-E mechanism found on many modern flutes. Borne composed several fantasies on themes from popular operas, of which the Carmen fantasy is by far the best known. The work exploits the entire range of the flute, in accordance with Borne’s aim of writing pieces that demonstrated what the instrument was capable of, while challenging the technique and expressive abilities of the performer. The Fantaisie Brillante uses several of the best-known themes from Carmen and creates variations on these motifs, highlighting both musical and technical aspects of flute performance. Perhaps with his tongue in his cheek at times, Borne produces almost a synopsis of Bizet’s opera, with the central evocation of the celebrated Habanera, extended in increasingly flashy variations, as an undoubted high-point, in a composition perhaps essentially intended for the salon but also enjoyable for its feats of instrumental transformation and metamorphosis.
Borne begins with the music of Carmen’s first entrance in the opera. A plunge into an ominous C minor, with dramatic piano tremolo writing, introduces the ‘Fate’ theme from the Act I Prelude. As the music develops we encounter a brief reference to the chorus in Act I where soldiers and townspeople greet the appearance of Carmen. The flute then sings the famous Habanera theme, the piano imitating the original orchestral setting, and the bravura variations follow. These build up the excitement for the ‘Gypsy Dance’ from Act II of the opera. This too is treated to brilliant variations and then, just as the work seems to be drawing to an end, the minor key is replaced by the major with a triumphant statement of the one famous theme so far unheard, the ‘Toreador Song’, which becomes the basis for a finale of vertiginous bravura.
As her music is being progressively rediscovered, it begins to look as though Louise Farrenc (1804–1875) was the most important woman composer of the first half of the 19th century. However admirable the creative gifts of Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, the fact remains that the lady from Paris was more productive, more ambitious, worked on a larger scale and in a wider range of genres, and wrote music of comparable quality that scintillates with life and wit. Perhaps there is nothing in her output that can convey the pathos and emotional depth of, for instance, some of Clara Schumann’s late Romanzen. But on the other hand Clara wrote no symphonies (Farrenc wrote two), and her sole (superb) Piano Trio stands as her only concerted chamber piece, while Farrenc turns out to have adorned the genre with several works of similar size and importance. She was clearly a cultured artist – and a fortunate one, married to a music publisher. Like her elder contemporary and compatriot George Onslow, with whom she shares some stylistic characteristics, Farrenc was a postclassical composer whose forms and phraseology generally hark back to the age of Beethoven, if not necessarily to Beethoven himself. Thus the E minor Trio, for example, is in one sense a very ‘old-fashioned’ work for its time. But since we have left its time far behind it is likely to appeal on other grounds than up-to-dateness. Farrenc had an individual sensibility, adeptly balancing sentiment and seriousness, and her craftsmanship borders on the masterly. Perfectly successful in her own day, and a respected editor of early music as well as Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire from 1842, she seems to have been almost immediately forgotten after her death, and it’s heartening that her oeuvre is now being revived.
Louise Farrenc’s Trio in E minor, Op.45 for flute, cello and piano, composed during 1861–2, was her last chamber work. She dedicated it to the flautist Louis Dorus (1812–1890), who had become Professor of Flute at the Paris Conservatoire a short while before, in 1860. (It was Dorus who taught Taffanel, who taught Gaubert.)
Opening with a very brief Allegro deciso fanfare, the first movement settles down, Più moderato ed espressivo, to a full classical sonata form (with exposition repeat), superbly written for all three instruments and showing Farrenc’s considerable contrapuntal artistry in its discreet touches of canon. The vigorous development section puts the themes through their paces, with a moment of lyrical pathos as the flute, unaccompanied, leads into the recapitulation and the stormy coda. The Andante slow movement, in C major, opens as if a sentimental romance for the flute over a placid accompaniment. But a gruff and stormy interruption, led off by cello and piano plunges us into C minor; the thundery weather recedes, however, and the cello takes over the songful main theme with delicate triplet decoration from the flute. The elegiac final bars provide the merest hint of the storm clouds from earlier. A restless and swift-moving Scherzo, Vivace, returns us to E minor, with urgent rhythmic writing for all three players. The trio section moves to E major for a suavely lyrical cello tune, taken up by the flute. The Scherzo returns da capo in the minor, but the movement diverts into the major for a reminder of the trio section’s melody before a curt dismissal. The Presto finale starts off with a rapid, running flute theme in even quavers, immediately adopted by the piano as a background to other figures. This even-quaver chatter provides much of the motive power for the movement, though Farrenc also produces a blithe transition theme and a highly expressive second subject of real pathos led off by the cello and developing into a passionate duet with the flute. The rest of the movement develops these different elements in a spirited show of inventiveness and effervescent spirits, turning soon to E major and bringing the proceedings to an end in high good humour.
Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992) enshrines the intimate relations of popular and classical in Argentinian concert music. As a bandoneón virtuoso and band-leader he became one of the most original exponents of the tango, Latin America’s most celebrated dance; at the same time he longed to write symphonic and chamber works. He studied with Alberto Ginastera in Buenos Aires and Nadia Boulanger in Paris and eventually, despite much opposition, effected a fusion of classical concert forms with the sinuous rhythm and passion of tango. Enormously prolific (over 1000 pieces!), with works ranging from concertos and orchestral suites to a multitude of dance numbers, Piazzolla was truly to the tango what Johann Strauss II was to the waltz. In 1962 Piazzolla composed the incidental music for El Tango del Ángel, a theatre piece by Alberto Rodriguez Nuñoz. The play is a spiritual drama in which an angel arrives in a poor, run-down neighborhood of Buenos Aires on a mission to heal the spirits of its inhabitants – but instead is killed in a vicious knife-fight with a local villain. The climax of the play, and of Piazzolla’s music, is La muerte del Ángel (The Death of the Angel) – a piece that Piazzolla performed many times in his concerts in its original form for his quintet (bandoneón, violin, piano and acoustic and electric bass), and which he and others have arranged for a multitude of different ensembles. We hear it here as a trio for flute, cello and piano. This remarkable piece is a threevoice fugue based on a jagged, aggressive theme that is dissonantly bandied about among the three instruments. The furious activity stills for a slower, sinuous central section that has an air of dark sentimentality. The fugue theme resumes – though the writing is no longer strictly fugal – and comes to a decisive, thrusting close.
Notes © 2011 by Malcolm MacDonald