Steel and McCabe, flute and piano in delightful recital at St Andrew’s

Rebecca Steel (flute) and Fiona McCabe (piano)

Taktakishvili; Sonata for flute and piano
Bach: Sonata for flute and keyboard in E minor, BWV1034
Debussy: Flute Sonata, arrangement of the Sonata for violin and piano

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 5 July, 12:15 pm

A fortnight ago at St Andrew’s we heard Rebecca Steel as a member of a quintet of flutes from the RNZAF Band in a splendidly diverting programme of music (mostly) arranged for five flutes. So I had hesitated about coming to hear more flute music in a particularly busy week for me. But squeezing it in proved an excellent decision.

Rebecca was back this time with her piano partner, Fiona McCabe to play an equally interesting and perhaps slightly more musically mainstream music.

Otar Taktakishvili lived in Georgia from 1924 to 1989. He was one of the republic’s leading composers/conductors and a recipient of the Stalin Prize. This flute sonata seems to have been his best known work, though there are symphonies, concertos, symphonic poems, operas, songs, much of which has been performed and recorded in the Soviet Union/Russia and some in the West.  Judging by the character of the flute sonata, there are likely to be quite a few rewarding discoveries to be made.

When the dust settles and Soviet atrocities take their place among many violent regimes that nevertheless nurtured great art, we’ll find a huge amount of approachable music in Russian and Ukrainian (and other) archives.

Taktakishvili’s sonata lives in the sonic sphere of Debussy and/or Françaix, Ibert, and is certainly a descendant of the Jean-Pierre Rampal flute revival. Lightish in tone, but not trivial or sentimental without the hard-edged melodic shape of Prokofiev or much direct Shostakovich influence, though he was a friend of Shostakovich. Not conspicuously folk music influenced either.

But it lay happily and idiomatically for the two instruments and their uniformity of feeling reflected the players long-standing musical friendship.

J S Bach’s flute sonatas are not as familiar as his many suites and partitas for keyboard, violin and cello, but this performance of the E minor, BWV 1034, awakened, at least my, interest in them. There is a group of six, plus one outlier.  Most of Bach’s instrumental works seem to be perfectly comfortable in arrangements for other instruments, and one can easily imagine the violin taken by the flute, or the oboe, or the viola, and vice-versa.

This one, in E minor, somewhat sombre in tone, would be interesting on the cello for it weaves an emotional scene in the slowish first movement that is somewhat complex, suggestive of a beautiful vocal piece; and the second movement, an Allegro that’s not too boisterous, features endless rippling arpeggios that our flutist managed breathwise most skilfully (she’d remarked on Bach’s thoughtlessness regarding the player’s breathing needs). The third movement is again dominated by a long vocal style melody, that caused me to be surprised that I didn’t know this and, perhaps, the other flute sonatas. The final Allegro might have been some kind of ‘Badinerie’ but refrained from unbridled speed and gaiety, to be merely a delight.

Finally, an actual arrangement, of Debussy’s last work, his violin sonata. As I reflected above, it showed how some music for flute or violin moves easily from one instrument to the other without offence. In fact it sounded as if written for the flute, its ornaments translating exquisitely (I couldn’t recall with confidence whether they were exactly as written for the violin). It was arranged by the player, though I see that there have been other arrangements. There are long, slow notes that lie in the alto flute range, in between flutters high into the treble, and it all sounds perfectly natural.

Debussy gives a rather specific indication to the second movement: ‘Fantasque et léger’, and it was an awakening to hear those phrases in the middle where the piano beats repeated notes and the flute echoes and decorates the ideas. All the fantastic touches reproduce in exactly the spirit of the original. At one point I scribbled that the accompaniment actually sounded more interesting with the flute as companion.

The last movement is flighty, with little trills and accelerating scales, spiky series of four flute notes that are so idiomatic, and fill one with wonder not only at Debussy’s ever-evolving musical imagination, but his unique feeling for the sounds of individual instruments which in cases like this encompass more than one. If you have doubts, just listen more lovingly.

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