20th century music from charming flute duo: Bridget Douglas and Rachel Thomson

Bridget Douglas (flute) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

Messiaen: Le merle noir
John Ritchie: The Snow Goose
Jack Body: Rainforest (2006) – Movement 2 – ‘Returning from a hunt’, and movement 3 – ‘Lullaby’
Gaubert: Sonata No 1 for flute and piano

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 12 August, 12:15 pm

According to Bridget Douglas’s programme note, Le merle noir was the only piece that Messiaen wrote for the solo flute, which seems extraordinary in the light of his passion for bird song for which the uninitiated would imagine the flute to be the commonest, closest instrument to the sounds of many birds. I know I’ve heard it played live before but had only a sketchy recollection of it.

It starts in a fairly raucous manner, suggesting our tui more than any other bird with which I’m familiar in New Zealand, though the music quickly becomes more calm. It was a careful and beautiful performance by both instruments.

Next was a small narrative piece by Christchurch composer John Ritchie, The Snow Goose, a once very popular story by Paul Gallico, about the loyalty of the bird that escorted one of the thousands of small boats that helped in the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk in 1940.

The piece, originally written with orchestral accompaniment, is an uneasy, thoughtful piece that was suggestive rather than explicit about the story, using the flute, naturally, to depict the bird. The piece was played at a St Andrew’s concert on 29 April by Ingrid Culliford and Kris Zuelicke.

I rather expected the piano to describe other elements of the story such as the war and the sea, but the piano is little more than a sensitive accompaniment, often echoing the flute’s melodic hints. The two, as always, formed a particularly charming partnership. You will find on You-Tube, surprisingly I thought, a performance of the piece by Carol Hohauser and pianist Barbara Lee, made in a concert in New Jersey; it expressed its simply beauties, but just quietly, I think we heard a more persuasive account at St Andrew’s.

Bridget Douglas picked up her big alto flute to play Jack Body’s 2006 composition, Rainforest – the second and third movements. Rachel talked about Jack Body’s requirement to place a chain across the piano strings, finding the effect unattractive, and settled in the end for a very delicate necklace. I could not detect anything of its effect on the sound. The music was based on recordings of music from the Central African Republic and was originally scored for flute and harp, for Flight, comprising this flutist and harpist Carolyn Mills.

The second movement, ‘Returning from a hunt’, began with a jaunty motif, flute and piano taking different paths, though the one was clearly necessary to the other. The third movement, ‘Lullaby 1’, according to the notes, ‘sounds unexpectedly restless to western ears’; not conducive to sleep, I thought, but sounding more like a complex dance.

Philippe Gaubert followed in the footsteps of the great flutist Paul Taffanel, became professor of flute at the Paris Conservatoire and later, conductor of the Paris Opera. His sonata was a charming, lyrical piece, probably difficult enough technically; though structurally conventional, with lively outer movements and a slow, Lent, middle movement, there was nothing bland or commonplace in the music, and it was given the sort of serious, committed performance that would be appropriate for a much more heavy-weight piece.

We noted back in May the frequency of recitals involving the flute. And having missed reviewing a recital by Karen Batten and Rachel Thomson on 24 June, here was another very fine exhibition of the instrument’s versatility and charm.


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