Enchanting, polished recital by Rebecca Steel, flute and Ingrid Bauer, harp

Rebecca Steel (flute) and Ingrid Bauer (harp)

Music by Debussy (En bateau and La plus que lente), Persichetti (Serenade No 10 for flute and harp), Bach (Flute sonata in G minor, BWV 1020), Piazzolla (Bordello and Café from Histoire du tango)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 21 October, 12:15 pm

I last heard Rebecca Steel in a recital with Simon Brew and Jane Curry, as the Amistad Trio, in May, when I commented that it was the third concert involving the flute in a month. I wasn’t complaining.

Here she was, a confident, conspicuous figure, contrasting with the commonly perceived view of the flute as an instrument of ethereal delicacy. With Ingrid Bauer’s harp, it proved a combination made in heaven even though there was little in their playing that could be dismissed as delicate or transcendental.

They opened with a transcription of Debussy’s En bateau. It is the first part of the Petite Suite which the Amistad Trio played in May.

I think this version worked better. Here, the thought of a marriage of true minds came to me, as the transcription of the original for piano, four hands, called up a spirit that seemed to capture even more than Debussy’s own version did what the composer might really have been seeking; and it’s well known that he tended to avoid orchestrating his music, often leaving it to others. (Yes, I know there are many wonderful exceptions to that observation).

To begin, I thought the flute had a little too much presence, and could imagine a more subtle, languid sound, but the two players soon bewitched me; I’d prefer it to the orchestration by Henri Büsser.

And it so happened that as I was finishing this review I heard Elric Hooper in one of his classic discussions with Des Wilson on Concert FM; talking about his own life, after years of their delightful, insightful discussions on a wide variety of musical, dance, theatrical and generally artistic subjects. Elric’s last words, about music that touched him deeply, that calmed his soul; he said: “En bateau; it always fills me with joy”. Yes, I think so.

At its end Rebecca made a remark about Mallarmé: a poem? Or what? I think En bateau was based on a poem of Verlaine; there’s also Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre which might also have had a connection.

La plus que lente (‘the more than slow [waltz]’) is in rather a similar vein, written for solo piano; the performance was based on an arrangement for violin and piano. Though it doesn’t purport to suggest water or clouds or anything insubstantial, an expectation of dreaminess and other-worldliness might well be met by these instruments, and they approached that spirit. In fact, as has been observed by others, it can be compared, in its ironic, satirical intention, to Ravel’s in La Valse, reflecting the immense social significance of the waltz in 19th century Europe.

The useful website AllMusic, records: “It represented Debussy’s laconic reaction to the pervasive influence of the slow waltz in France’s coffee-houses, dance-halls, and salons. But, writes Frank Howes, ‘La plus que lente is, in Debussy’s wryly humorous way, the valse lente to outdo all others.’ Apparently Debussy handed the manuscript of this piece to the gypsy fiddler Leoni, whose Romany band played to great popular acclaim in the ballroom of the New Carlton Hotel in Paris. It was almost certainly here that Debussy got the idea for the work in the first place.”

It was a delightful partner to En bateau.

I’ve heard Persichetti’s Serenade No 10 before, most recently in a 2012 performance, by Michelle Velvin, harp, and Monique Vossen, flute; it was reviewed in Middle C. In 2009, I heard, and reviewed, a performance by flutist Lucy Anderson and Ingrid Bauer, as members of the then National Youth Orchestra.

Persichetti is a strangely under-exposed composer, ignored probably for not writing in idioms that impress the academic music industry. Indeed, its eight short movements don’t allow much chance for the material to evolve in clever, complex ways. But Ingrid Bauer had briefly demonstrated a few of the harp techniques that Persichetti used to create an unpretentious work that would not tax too greatly, yet entertain an audience with visual surprises, with its tonal variety and colour as well as finding melodic ideas that were piquant, never hackneyed or sentimental. The movements ranged from triple time, dance rhythms, through many moods and soundscapes: meditative, joyous, dreamy, boisterous, always diverting. It was a performance of elegance, wit and skill.

The Bach flute sonata in G minor is one that invites a certain amount of scholarly scrutiny; it’s the seventh of his flute sonatas – the other six are authentic J S Bach – but this might be by C P E Bach, as Rebecca Steel told us, and I was easy to persuade to hear a ‘galant’ flavour in it rather than heartland J S Bach. It lies beautifully for the harp which plays alone for the entire opening ritornello, but when the flute arrived its lines were so charming that it was hard to sense its minor key modality. One had to search for that flattened ‘mi’. The two players together made wonderfully congenial sounds, especially in the middle Adagio movement, which indeed sounded too Romantic for Bach père. At times I was reminded of the melodic flavour of Telemann.

The first two movements of Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango ended the recital; Bordello and Café. It’s fair to recall that Rebecca, with her Trio Amistad, had played it in a Wellington Chamber Music concert back in May. There was nothing raunchy or unseemly about the music Piazzolla imagined for his Buenos Aires brothel (bordello is a friendlier word?) It is an engaging exploration of the latent musical potential of the tango, the variety of subtle rhythms and melodic shapes that can evolve under fertile conditions. And it was played with such verve and delight.

The Café scene was very different; I’d heard it played a few days before by Donald Maurice on his viola d’amore and guitarist Jane Curry; while that was very attractive, this offered another, perfectly tasteful approach, the harp acting like the guitar to paint a decorous scene. Without a strong rhythm, dreamily, it soon becomes more lively but after a while tricks the listener to feeling that the subsiding energy is rambling to the end. After a pause it resumes with renewed firmness and a more definite melody which is elaborated and brightens.

It was one of the most charming recitals I’ve heard this year from the very strong competition at the St Andrew’s lunchtime series.

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