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An Imperishable Instrument In a Venerable Family

The MHS Review 401, VOL. 12, NO.5 • 1988

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Paul Kresh


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In the arsenal of conventional in­struments at the disposal of the modern composer--not even to allude to what has become available through the wizardry of electronics--none has proven more ver­satile than that virtuosic woodwind, the flute. Penny whistles, panpipes, piccolos, recorders, ocarinas, fifes, flageolets--the generic term flute covers them all, and players have been blowing music through their whistle mouthpieces since the days when shepherds first sweetened the pastoral air with their songful sounds.

Flutes have been found among the earliest artifacts of ancient civilizations. The transverse flute was a military instru­ment in the Middle Ages. In the 17th cen­tury, the Frenchman Peter Bressan was in England constructing professional flutes in three sections. The four-section flute followed; by 1832 Theobald Boehm­--solemnly referred to in the music en­cyclopedias as the "father" of modern woodwind instruments--had pretty much perfected the flute as we know it today.

Since then, the modern flute has gone in and out of fashion. It was slighted, for ex­ample, in the 19th century as the sym­phony orchestra got bigger and louder and the horn and clarinet began to blare it out of prominence, but in our time it has piped its way back into the forefront of things. As a solo instrument, the flute has again been taken up in this century by composers of concerti who have encouraged it to sing its heart out once more in a wide variety of musical languages. Three fascinating ex­amples can be heard in this Musical Heritage Society collection.

The performers are ideally suited to their assignments, the soloist being Aurele Nicolet--as fine a French flutist as has emerged in recent years on the musical scene. The orchestra is the Gewandhaus of Leipzig conducted by Kurt Masur. As it hap­pens, the Leipzig Gewandhaus is also the very orchestra of which the oldest com­poser of the three represented in this com­pilation was once principal conductor. He was Carl Reinecke, who started his career as a pianist in the court of Denmark, taught Liszt's daughters to play the instrument, was director of the Leipzig Conservatoire as well as conductor of the Gewandhaus, but who found time too in his busy career to compose some 288 works, of which his Flute Concerto in D was the 283rd, writ­ten when he was 84. Like the rest of Reinecke's compositions, once belittled as mere "scribblings" but since come to be regarded as examples of remarkable originality and superb instrumentation, this concerto deserves a niche on the map of late romantic musical landmarks.

Ferruccio Busoni was in rebellion against that very tradition. His Divertimento for flute and orchestra is a pure example of the "new classicism" of 1920 that was going to reform the excesses of the romantic age by harking back all the way to the purities and lucidities of the 18th century. Yet this nine-minute gem could scarcely be mistaken as the brainchild of anybody but Busoni himself.

Carl Nielsen, still widely worshiped as one of modern Scandinavia's great gifts to music, had written all six of his celebrated symphonies when he composed both his woodwind concerti-one for clarinet, one for flute and orchestra-in the year 1926. There are neither flutes nor trumpets in the orchestra for Nielsen's Flute Concerto, so the double cadenza for flute and clarinet that climaxes the first movement sounds all the more startling against a generally somber instrumental background. This varied, tuneful work, ending in a vigorous little march, also proclaims-in its neo­romantic way-the endearing and endur­ing appeal of the flute as perhaps the most imperishable of all the instruments in the venerable woodwind family. A fascinating release.

Review of Flute Concerti page 29

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