Beautiful lunchtime with a flute and piano at St Andrew’s

Rebecca Steel – flute and Diedre Irons – piano

Poulenc: Flute Sonata
Franck: Flute Sonata in A (transcription of the violin sonata)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 6 April, 12:45 pm

I’ve heard Rebecca Steel at least three times over the past year, playing with a pianist or as part of a trio, in interesting music, often adapted from music for other instruments: Debussy piano pieces, Piazzolla, Chopin, or authentic flute works such as by Bach or Villa-Lobos or Persichetti.

This time we heard what is perhaps the most famous and attractive flute sonata of the 20th century: Poulenc’s; and one of the several adaptations of César Franck’s Violin Sonata which is so lovely that everyone wants a piece of it. And here, with her partner, one of New Zealand’s finest pianists, we heard a version that proved just how universal is its pertinence.

Both performances were world-class; a reminder that St Andrew’s had gained such a reputation that the country‘s top musicians find it worthwhile (not in a pecuniary sense) to play there. There was an audience of nearing 100, and I could sense that their applause recognized that they knew they were hearing music both memorable and splendidly played.

Poulenc, though nearing the end of his life, produced here a piece that, though its first movement is marked Allegro malinconico, is a little slower than ‘allegro’ and not all that melancholy. It was full of vitality and melodic piquancy, and the dynamic attack and variety of articulation and colour had the audience sitting upright, with smiles on their faces. The second movement begins with a slowly rising arpeggio, and like most of Poulenc’s music, blessedly tonal, its face turned away from the strictures of the avant-garde. Nevertheless, its idiom could be of no time but the mid 20th century. Then the third movement, Presto giocoso, presents a sudden, almost shocking attack delivered equally by the two instruments. But it doesn’t persist, reverting for a moment to the calmer spirit of the first movement, with reference to what is somewhere referred to as ‘Poulenc’s trade-mark motif’, only to plunge back into the boisterousness of the first part to bring it to an end.

Franck’s sonata always raises the question in the minds of listeners, why didn’t he write lots of music in this gorgeous, melodic vein? Well, of course there is other music that supports his claim to be among the 20 greatest composers (make your own lists).

And it’s one of the pieces that seems to survive rearrangement for other instruments with no damage. I don’t think I’d heard a flute arrangement before, and was immediately won over, partly because of the strength of the music in melodic and structural terms, and partly through the brilliant and tasteful performance, by both flutist and pianist. The flute spun a lovely, lyrical line that banished any feelings I might have had about the ability of the flute to create the kind of legato phrases that come naturally to the violin. The duo allowed a subtle rubato to emerge, accelerating and slowing along with the rise and fall of the music. I feared that with the sparkling climax at the end of the second movement, applause might break out, but we had an audience that was sensitive to what the music was saying.

The following Recitativo movement was calm and beautiful, allowing the melody slowly to find its way, making us listen. I even had the inadmissable feeling that the flute was creating a more memorable impact, capturing the music’s essence more successfully that a violin would; it was so calm and peaceful.

The melody of the last movement is so sublime – it has stuck with me since I first heard it, played by a fellow student one sunny afternoon at a famous University Congress at Curious Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound long ago. The soft, velvety sound of the flute, immaculately matched by the piano, might have sounded, for a moment, a bit off-hand as the end approached, but the spell was nevertheless sustained.

It brought an unexpectedly beautiful recital to an artless, heartfelt conclusion.




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