Alexa Still and Diedre Irons – irresistible duo

ALEXA STILL (flute) and DIEDRE IRONS (piano)

Chamber Music Hutt Valley

Music by POULENC, BOYD, PROKOFIEV and BORNE (flute and piano)

DICK and MARAIS (flute solo)

CHOPIN (piano solo)

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Thursday 5th May 2011

Mistakenly thinking the concert was being held in nearby St.James’ Church, I wasted several precious minutes retracing steps and re-aligning my destination, finally being led by the sound of Alexa Still’s silvery flute tones to the entranceway of Lower Hutt’s Little Theatre. I thus missed the opening Allegro malinconico part of Poulenc’s Sonata for flute and piano, but was charmed, by way of compensation, both by the friendliness of my reception at the door, and the full, rich and impassioned playing from both Alexa Still and Diedre Irons which continued throughout the Cantilena second movement.

In the past I hadn’t much liked visiting this venue on account of what I thought I remembered was a dry, boxy acoustic, but these musicians were managing to fill the ambiences with plenty of rich, golden tones as to make the spaces seem positively resonant. Alexa Still’s tonal mastery was evident throughout Poulenc’s kaleidoscopic changes of focus and emphasis throughout the finale – the music’s character cheeky, heroic, profound and mock-serious by turns, requiring stellar command of control and reserves of energy! With pianist Diedre Irons displaying her characteristic ebullience and quicksilver reflexes, both players brought out the music’s constant flux in mood and manner, delivering to we listeners a veritable chaos of charm and delight right to the end.

Alexa Still introduced the flute items, interesting us with her remarks about the music and her experience of playing the works previously – she obviously has an extremely wide repertoire and musical sympathies to match, judging by the range and scope of this concert. A piece by American composer Anne Boyd was next, Goldfish through Summer Rain, a work which uses exotic colors and pointilistic techniques. The piano caught the effect of raindrops, while the long, languid lines of the flute made the perfect foil for the piano, creating something of the same floating effect as in Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun. I thought the whole work imbued with a kind of longing for a world of beauty, wishful of bringing into creative being an order of things – what a friend of mine would describe as “very Zen”!

Prokofiev’s Sonata I knew in a version for violin and piano, so I was surprised and delighted to find a familiar piece of music in what was for me a new and exciting guise – in fact its original form! – and sounding here as though it thoroughly belonged to the flute-and-piano repertoire. Like many great composers, Prokofiev wrote music whose identity with its creator is evident within a couple of bars’ hearing, no matter how unfamiliar. Straightaway there’s that characteristic astringent flavour to the melody and its harmony, and an accompanying volatility of textures and dynamics which “spikes” the composer’s best work. Something of a neoclassicist as well as a revolutionary, Prokofiev drew these elements beautifully together in works such as this sonata – we so enjoyed the first movement’s clean-cut melodic contourings and their beautifully-crafted symmetries, elements of the music to which both Still and Irons brought their capacities for articulating volatile detail within a larger framework, returning us richly and surely to the opening mood at the movement’s end.

The quirky Scherzo “bucking-broncoed” our imaginations most energetically, the performance putting plenty of élan and glint into the vertiginous figurations, before  pulling everything momentarily to order for a lovely, somewhat melancholy trio section, one which the composer nevertheless keeps on its toes with occasional skyrocketting irrruptions. Still and Irons had a fine time with the “big tune” at its return, tossing its angularities about with fine style, before dispatching the music at the end with a deft gesture wrought of magic. After this the slow movement amply demonstrated Prokofiev’s way of conjuring melody and feeling from grey matter –  beautiful in places but essentially austere, a feeling which the jolly, heavy-footed dance that opened the finale was able to rescue us from most thankfully. As well as plenty of lusty energy, Still and Irons brought granite-like strength to the “building-blocks” episodes, and just the right amount of circumspection to the movement’s lyrical centre, before seamlessly reinvigorating the figurations with the energies needed to lead the music back into the dance – a heart-warming performance.

We were warned by Alexa Still, before playing the first item after the interval, for flute solo, that she might be making some strange sounds, and these were entirely on purpose! The work was one I’d heard her play at a previously concert, Fish are Jumping, for flute alone, by the American flutist and composer Robert Dick. This was a languid, lazy and bluesy piece, not, as one might expect, a variation on Gershwin’s Summertime tune but a realization equally as atmospheric, with flourishes of energy in places. Still’s technical facility astonished, here – her uncanny ability to play “chords” (two notes simultaneously, with what sounded like accompanying overtones) made for a distinctly exotic and unworldly impression, making the whole a kind of “transport of delight” to the enchantment of other realms. A comparable distancing, in time, was achieved by Still with Marin Marais’ Le Folies d’Espagne, with the inestimable help of a wooden mouthpiece, to achieve a more authentic timbre for this piece – a sombre theme at the outset, but with variations that had a wider range of expression that I expected from this composer.I’d always thought of Marais as a kind of French equivalent to John Dowland, he of the “semper Dowland, semper dolens” reputation – as the French say, l’air ne fait pas la chanson…..

Came pianist Diedre Irons’ turn for a solo, and she gave us Chopin’s F Minor Fantasy, her playing exhibiting that alchemic mixture of clear-sighted discipline and far-flung and fantastical imagination, so that we, as the composer intended, appear to be witnessing a spontaneous creation of the spirit, the music both taking and being taken throughout fanciful realms. The pianist’s mastery of rubato married strength and spontaneity in a wonderfully osmotic way; and the strength of her playing negated the venue’s tendency to dryness, instead filling the vistas with surges of tone and proper “glint” at the tops of the figurations. Regarding the piece’s freedom I’ve always tended to regard the Fantasy as a kind of subconscious homage on Chopin’s part to Liszt, his colleague/rival, with the brilliance of some of the piano writing balanced by the almost Faustian character of some of the darker episodes, only with more equivocal treatment in places of the virtuoso keyboard writing – the music occasionally stopping as if to listen to its own voice, in places. I thought the piece’s essential character captured here so well in this respect, so that, in Diedre Irons’ hands Chopin was still always Chopin.

After this, I’m afraid, the gaucheries of Francois Borne’s Fantasy on themes from Bizet’s “Carmen” sounded more than embarrassingly hollow, though both musicians characteristically gave it their all – perhaps if we had taken up Alexa Still’s invitation to us to “sing along with the bits you recognize”, the work could have had at least some point. This all sounds very snobbish on my part, but I’m aware of there being a number of brilliantly-constructed, rather more “organically” conceived fantasy-like “reminiscences” of Bizet’s eponymous opera, written for various instruments – if this is the flute’s only representative relating to the work, then it’s a pity Still herself hasn’t thought about bringing her musical intelligence and virtuosic skills to producing something for her instrument making use of those glorious tunes that hangs together more convincingly than this – all that spectacular fingering and tonguing, all those beautiful tones (maybe if Sarasate had played the flute…….).

An encore written by Ravel – a Habanera, but not from Rapsodie Espagnole – was sufficient balm for the senses, in the wake of the previous item’s lurid horrors – here we had worlds of evocative gesture and tonal ravishment from both instruments over a few short minutes, a display of mastery, all in all, on the part of composer and musicians alike. It was a heart-warming way to conclude a brilliant musical evening.

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