Sarah Frisof Salutes Women Composers

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LEÓN: Alma. C. SCHUMANN: 3 Romances, Op. 22. A. WILLIAMS: First Lines. L. BOULANGER: Nocturne. D’un matin de printemps. SAARIAHO: Cendres.* RAN: Birds of Paradise / Sarah Frisof, fl; Daniel Pesca, pno; *Hannah Collins, cel / Furious Artisans FACD6826

American flautist Sarah Frisof presents here the music of women composers “through time.” This includes the female Romantic composer du jour, Clara Schumann; the modern female composer of the decade, Kaija Saariaho; one famous midpoint composer, Lili Boulanger; and three other contemporary women composers of whom the most famous is Shulamit Ran.

The first piece, Tania León’s Alma, is a fascinating and complex work using atonal top lines and lip buzzes on the flute against an essentially tonal piano accompaniment. The title, however, does not refer to Alma Mahler but, rather, the Spanish use of the word to mean “soul or spirit; invisible forces, like the wind that caresses the chimes outside my window.” These are some pretty edgy winds, however, which include double-time figures with an interesting progression. To my ears, Alma sounded like an uptempo “mood” piece; by the four-minute mark we are engaged in a fast passage with Latin rhythm before returning to the lip buzzes in the finale.

Clara Schumann’s 3 Romances are what they are, nice but unexceptional pieces for flute. Clara was a solid composer but not very original or very interesting. It’s in-one-ear-and-out-the-other music although Frisof plays these pieces exceptionally well, giving them an energy and zest I’ve never heard in Clara’s music before, and Daniel Pesca is an equally interesting accompanist.

Amy Williams’ First Lines, at first exposure, appears to be one of those modern-edgy pieces that are all the rage today, yet as the short movements follow one another one is struck by her ability to create interesting sonorities with just these two instruments, using both in a very percussive manner. This is especially true of the piano, which is often required to pluck the strings or bang inside the frame of the instrument. The music is not at all melodically appealing, nor does it try to be; it is, rather, a series of brief experiments in the combination of sonority and rhythm. In the sixth piece, quarter = 88, the flautist simply blows air through her instrument, producing no fixed tone. A bit gimmicky? Perhaps, but to my ears very effective.

After such a strange piece, the Debussy-like Nocturne of Lili Boulanger almost sounds old-fashioned but for the rootless chords and harmonic shifts. D’un matin de printemps sounds more modern still, with surprising juxtapositions of harmonies, and again the team of Frisof and Pesca is superb.

Kaija Saariaho is described in the notes as a composer influenced “by the Spectral movement in French music,” but to my ears only some of her pieces are effective as music. Much of her later output seems to be more concerned with startling her audiences than creating pieces with any real forward progression or development. This 1998 trio for flute, cello and piano takes something of a midway point; it is also meant to startle the listener, but actually has some nice development and goes somewhere. The cello doesn’t get nearly as much as the flute or piano, and its part is rather ungrateful for the instrument, calling on the player to use edgy, “ugly” bowing. It is, however, a pretty interesting piece and exceptionally well played by all three musicians. We end with Shulamit Ran’s Birds of Paradise, another edgy piece but even better developed than the Saariaho work despite the use of more percussive passages for the flute and extremely strange harmonies for the piano.

There is no question but that this is a truly exceptional album, and that is due to Sarah Frisof’s spectacular playing. I was startled to learn in the booklet that she was only a semifinalist at the 2009 Kobe International Flute Competition and placed second in the National Flute Association’s Young Artist Competition. This is a musician of exceptional skills and, better yet, musical sensibilities, a probable successor to the older and more established Tara Helen O’Connor. I wish her well in her career and most certainly would like to hear further releases by her!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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