A month of music

July 30, 2007

This month, when the heat of the summer has been in full blaze, I decided to turn to music for the flute. It seemed a fitting choice, for the flute in its lower range is hazy and sultry, but bursts into a bright and airy timbre in its upper range. I had intended to make a pilgrimage through the flute repertoire, but in the end I only managed a smattering of things.

I began where so many good things begin: with Bach. He has left us a set of seven flute sonatas (three being of contested authorship). They are delightful works, dancing and melodious. In the recording I heard they were played on a baroque flute, which has a very pleasing wooden, earthy quality, much less piercing and precise than a modern flute. I liked it very much. But the biggest surprise awaiting me on that recording was a performance of Bach’s Partita for solo flute (BWV 1013). I didn’t know there was such a thing! It’s a wonderful find. If you know his works for solo violin or cello, you’ll have some idea of what to expect: top-flight virtuosity, intellectual rigour, and — always — beautiful music. The timbre of the flute, however, has none of the moody warmth of the cello or stern dignity of the violin. It’s bright and charming instead. I’ll be returning to this piece again and again.

I had planned to listen to Mozart’s two flute concerti and his concerto for flute, viola, and harp. But I didn’t have time. In fact, I jumped over the classical and romantic eras completely, landing firmly in the twentieth century.

More precisely, I landed in France, and the music of Debussy. He is famous for many very original compositions, but not least among them is a little piece called Syrinx, for solo flute. It’s shy of three minutes in performance, but it packs a world of feeling and atmosphere into that small space. I have no idea what Debussy was seeking to convey in the music. For me it conjures up desert sands, wavering oases, exotic spices, the beauty of Cleopatra, and a wide sky of hot sun. It’s a sultry, seductive piece of music, wandering at whim from one lovely idea to the next. Delightful.

I then turned to a short work by Toru Takemitsu, called Toward the Sea. Takemitsu is the only Japanese composer I know of to have earned a (moderately) wide hearing in the western musical world. His compositional style has been heavily influenced by western classical music — particularly that of Debussy and Messiaen — which helps explain the appeal his music has to our ears. And it is very appealing, despite what initially seem to be peculiarities. Perhaps the first thing to strike the listener is how unstructured his music sounds: wisps of sound drift in and out of earshot as though carried on a wind, plucked strings drop like pebbles into a pond and then subside, and it can often be difficult to find a musical pulse. In an interview, Takemitsu once said that he liked to take a ten minute walk in the garden, then come home and write a ten minute piece about the experience, and this captures very well the felling one gets from his music. It is impressionistic and ephemeral, but beautiful nonetheless.

Toward the Sea is a three movement work scored only for alto flute and guitar. The textures are very clean and open. In the alto range the flute has a rich, warm sound, and Takemitsu has given it a lyrical, wandering melody to play. In some ways the piece is a study in timbre, calling also on a variety of unusual flute effects, such as rapid vibrato. The general impression, however, is of languid repose. Not as characterful as Debussy’s short piece, but still very fine.

I wasn’t entirely tied to the flute, however. A discovery this month was Gian Carlo Menotti‘s ambitious Missa O Pulchritudo. In fact, Menotti (1911- 2007) himself was a discovery, for this is the first I have heard of his music. I was introduced to him through a warmly appreciative eulogy from Robert Reilly. The Missa is a big, glorious work scored for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra. At about 45 minutes in duration, it is a concert piece rather than a liturgical one.

The Kyrie sets the tone: a majestic chorus sounds over a lushly scored orchestra, now joyful and confident, now hushed and delicate. The music is tuneful and harmonically palatable, with no trace of the astringency that too often characterizes modern music. The Credo is absent, which came as something of a surprise. Menotti has replaced it with a motet O Pulchritudo, in which he sets St. Augustine’s famous prayer from his Confessions: “Late have I loved Thee, Thou Beauty ever old and ever new”. I wish I had the full text, but sadly eMusic, from whom I acquired the disc, does not provide liner notes. In any case, it is a beautiful interlude. The Agnus Dei opens with a plaintive tenor solo, soon joined by an alto, then by the full chorus. Taking a page from Beethoven’s playbook, the movement erupts into a rough martial passage, the chorus quietly intoning Agnus Dei beneath the bluster. But this storm eventually subsides, replaced by sweet harmonic swells on the words Dona nobis pacem — obvious word-painting, perhaps, but effective for all that.

It’s a very fine piece. I can’t help hearing it as a genuine expression of religious fervour, for it aims quite directly at the heart. The recording — at present the only recording of the piece, I believe — is on Cedille, sung by the William Ferris Chorale. The sound is good, but not above criticism. It is a live performance, and quiet moments are sometimes interrupted by coughs from the audience.

Speaking of audiences, I was part of two this month. My life-list of songwriters to see in concert has included a short-list of Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Leonard Cohen. Courtesy the Ottawa Bluesfest I was able to add another notch to my Bob Dylan tally (now at three), and to scratch in my first marker for Van Morrison. They were both great concerts. Now I have only to see Leonard Cohen for my ambitions to be satisfied. Since I believe he no longer gives concerts, it’s going to be tricky.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: