Polished recital from Steel and Irons of flute and piano masterpieces at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Rebecca Steel (flute) and Diedre Irons (piano)

Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Prokofiev: Flute sonata in D, Op 94

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 5 September, 12:15 pm

While the series of concerts from students that occupies St Andrew’s lunchtime series regularly around this time of the year, are always a delight and sometimes expose unusual and interesting music, it’s nice to get back to the mainstream, with truly accomplished professional musicians.

The concert’s pun-prone title (Steel and Iron{s}} did announce a couple of New Zealand’s finest artists in their fields.

Though I tend to be wary of arrangements-of-convenience, the treatment of Debussy’s ground-breaking masterpiece, is a natural for such treatment (though its arranger was not mentioned), as the flute occupies such a central place in the work. And even though the rest of the orchestral parts are there in the mind, their transmutation at the hands of such an accomplished pianist seemed to meet all the expectations. Undulating piano sounds others depicting the heavy hooves of the faun (spelling in English looks wrong we’ve become more used to Debussy’s, French faune). From the flute, meandering sounds, rippling arpeggios, moments of lazy voluptuousness and dappled shade; and it was hard to think that most of the writing for both flute and piano was transcription from a rich orchestral tapestry. I thought it all lost very little in translation.

Prokofiev’s 1943 flute sonata is the music he later transcribed at David Oistrakh’s suggestion, for violin and piano, which is the form that’s more familiar to me. However, the original, in the hands of this duo, emerged as a ever-slightly more idiomatic and made to measure, flute-inspired. For one thing, there were hints of the world of a flute-playing faun, in certain melodic turns of phrase.

It holds an important place in the flute repertoire which seems to include few formal sonatas: on thinks of Poulenc’s, Hindemith’s, and there’s apparently one by Reinecke which was originally included in this programme, and a few by Bach and other baroque composers. But only miscellaneous (some very fine) flute pieces by most of the ‘great’ composers.

This is a four-movement work that meets all the normal classical sonata criteria. It contains no suggestion of wartime, partly I suppose because Prokofiev was among the Soviet artists evacuated to pleasant sanctuary in the Caucasus or Urals. Certainly, the first movement breathes quietude between passages of busyness, and the second, Scherzo, Allegro, bustles with cheerfulness and high spirits, where the duo captured it all, including the pensive moment in the middle; and where their playing became almost reckless before coming to a halt – one of those that announces clearly that it’s not the end of the piece.

There was an airiness in the playing of the Andante: typical Prokofiev, excluding any hint of emotion, any revealing of personal feelings. That is also the nature of the longish Finale, Allegro con brio, in which piano and flute often seemed to inhabit different spaces, the flute fluttering brightly, up high, while the piano goes its independent way with heavier chordal diversions. One is strung along, expecting the end some time before it actually arrives, and it did strike me either that the composer was filling it out to meet certain dimensions, or that the players here were secretly waiting for the last page to be turned.

That may have been an unkind thought for a recital all of which I had thoroughly enjoyed.

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