Wilson Plays 20th-Century Flute Concerti

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FRANÇAIX: Impromptu for Flute & Strings. RIVIER: Concerto for Flute & Strings. DAMASE: Sérénade for Flute & Strings. IBERT: Concerto for Flute & Orchestra / Ransom Wilson, fl; BBC Concert Orch.; Perry So, cond / Nimbus Alliance NI6375

This is a surprisingly charming disc of French 20th-century flute concerti played by flautist Ransom Wilson, whose photo in the booklet looks anything but charming (he looks like a grizzled old prospector), with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Perry So. The program is bookended by two of the most famous French composers of the last century, Jean Françaix and Jacques Ibert.  In between we have works by two composers I was not familiar with, Jean Rivier (1896-1987), a member of the “Triton Group” in the 1930s, and Jean-Michel Damase (1928-2013), who studied piano with Alfred Cortot before moving on to composition, winning the politically-influenced Prix de Rome (the number of great composers denied it is far larger than the piddling few who won it) in 1947.

Françaix’s Impromptu for Flute & Strings is a lightweight work, yet a well-written one which gives the impression that the flute is dancing above the strings for the entirety of its duration. Slight though it is, it does include a skittering solo cadenza near the end of the fast third movement, unexpectedly closing out with an “Andante poetico” movement.

The Rivier concerto is a considerably meatier piece with “rotating” chromatics underlying its harmonic base, yet exudes charm in its own way. At 1:20 into the first movement, we suddenly shift gears from the quite serious introduction to a perky theme with skittering strings complementing the flute. Wilson plays all of this with a lovely tone and fine technique if perhaps not much range of dynamics or inflections. After a quite serious “Lento sensibile,” we end with a bright, perky “Molto vivace” full of bouncing syncopations.

Damase’s Sérénade for Flute & Strings, written in 1956 (the same year as the Rivier concerto), also starts out in a somewhat serious vein with the violas and cellos playing a sort of irregular ostinato rhythm at a medium tempo under the flute, after which the tempo doubles and we hear pizzicato strings behind the now-quite-active flute line. In the second movement, however, one’s interest wanes as the music becomes sappy, using conventional harmonies and uninteresting themes. Damase redeems himself somewhat in the third movement, where the harmonies become more interesting and the flute’s top lines are rather more inventive.

Ibert’s flute concerto is both peppy and modernistic at the same time, sort of a cousin to Shostakovich’s very popular piano concerti. The flute line remains melodic and basically tonal above an orchestral scoring that includes quite a few altered chord positions, which keep the listener on his or her toes. Wilson sounds particularly good in this piece and the BBC Concert Orchestra also plays with a great deal of brio. This cat-and-mouse game with harmony, allied to a somewhat vigorous rhythmic base, continues throughout the concerto.

In all, then, a well-played program weakened somewhat by the “classical music radio” quality of the Françaix and Damase works…but guess which ones you’ll hear on the air? No points for the correct guess!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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