Virtuosi of Flute and Bassoon head an engaging Cardiff Recital

05/02/2017

Torriani, Gaubert, Weber, Morlacchi: Dag Jensen (bassoon), Andrea Lieberknecht (flute), Catherine Milledge (piano), Dora Dtutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 27.1.2017. (GPu)

Antonio Torriani (1829-1911): Divertimento on various themes from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti.

Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941): Ballade for Flute and Piano

Alain Weber (b.1930): Sonatine for Flute and Bassoon

Pietro Morlacchi (1828-1868) and Antonio Torriani (1829-1911): Duetto concertato on themes from Verdi, for Flute, Bassoon and Piano.

One commonly meets the assertion that instrumental transcriptions or fantasias of operatic themes for piano or small chamber groups were mostly made for domestic performance. But can this really be true? Some of these pieces, including the two in this programme, present technical and interpretative challenges which very few amateur musicians of any period could, I suspect, have been able to handle (so that sales would have been tiny, had that been the intended market). Most amateur musicians who opened the score of, for example, Antonio Torriani’s ‘Divertimento’, would, I imagine, have shut it quietly and looked elsewhere.

It is surely more likely that a work such as this Divertimento was written either as a display piece for Torriani himself (one of the leading Italian bassoonists of his century), or conceivably either as something that other professional bassoonists might have played in town or cities where audiences didn’t have ready access to opera or as practice pieces for very advanced students with professional aspirations.

In Torriani’s Divertimento, the bassoon part is fiercely virtuosic, with lots of very rapid passage work, with some notes (including a high C and a D) at the very top of the instrument’s range and an ultra-rapid finale, as well as some gorgeously cantabile legato lines. Material from Donizetti’s opera includes the aria ‘Fra poco a me ricovero’ and the duet ‘Verrano a te sull’aure’. It all makes for a thoroughly entertaining listen, especially when played with the elan that Dag Jensen brought to the piece, sailing over all the difficulties as if they didn’t exist, articulating the wit with which Torriani treats some of his material. He was very ably supported by Cardiff-based pianist Catherine Milledge (now teaching both at the RWCMD and Cardiff University); some of the writing for the piano is moderately complex and the musical relationship between bassoon and the piano is quite sophisticated, but all the possible pitfalls were avoided.

We moved from Italy to France and from bassoon to flute with the second piece in the programme. But just as Torriani was one of the major bassoonists of his time and place, so the composer of this second piece, Philippe Gaubert, was the most significant French flautist of his generation. He was the favourite pupil of the great Paul Taffanel (effectively the founder of the modern French school of flute playing) and completed Taffanel’s treatise on the instrument after his teacher’s death in 1908. Gaubert was an important figure in French musical life (he was, for example, the flautist in the 1907 premiere of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro). His ‘Ballade for Flute and Piano’(1927) is a charming miniature (relatively speaking, it being some six or seven minutes long), essentially lyrical in a vein which owes more than a little to both Ravel and Debussy, and which, not surprisingly, displays a profound understanding of the nature of the flute; whether in the broad melodies of its opening or the serenity of its conclusion, Andrea Lieberknecht’s reading of the ‘Ballade’ was delightfully poised, her tone consistently beautiful, her phasing thoughtfully graceful. Once again, Catherine Milledge proved herself an excellent accompanist, adroitly supportive throughout.

Milledge took a break while Dag Jensen and Andrea Lieberknecht played Alain Weber’s Sonatine for Flute and Bassoon (1953). I was not familiar with this work, of which the three movements (Allegro moderato; Assez lent; Vif) do not, I suspect, make any great demands on the technique of players of the calibre of Jensen and Lieberknecht, but do require of them a high order of ensemble skills in some complex duet writing. The instrumental lines weave in and out of one another with considerable elaboration, and a good deal of mutual precision is required – and was certainly present in this performance – especially in the faster movements. There is a pleasing sense of musical wit in much of the writing. No great profundity here, but some sophisticated writing and some impressive musicianship from Dag Jensen and Andrea Lieberknecht.

The final work in this well-planned and excellently-performed lunchtime concert brought things back full circle in some respects, back from the Twentieth to the Nineteenth Century, back from France to Italy. Back, indeed, to Milan. Born in this city, Antonio Torriani was principal bassoonist at La Scala from 1864 to 1893 and professor at the city’s Conservatory from 1868-1908. The Duetto Concertante with which Dag Jensen and Andrea Lieberknecht closed their concert was a collaboration between Torriani and the flautist Pietro Morlacchi (another native of Milan) and was published by Ricordi (of Milan!). Morlacchi studied at the Conservatory in Milan and was then a professional flautist and composer (chiefly for his own instrument). The two, bassoonist and flautist, were active in Milan at very much the period when instrumental music was establishing itself in the city more than it previously had. This joint-composition was premiered by Torriani and Morlacchi when played, in 1851, between the first two Acts of Don Pasquale at the city’s Teatro del Lentasio.

The instrumental blend was very attractive in this rhythmically assured and pleasantly lyrical performance. At times the bassoon provides rhythmic support behind and below the flute, but

it also gets its share in the forefront. There are some attractive paraphrases of, and allusions to, a number of themes by Verdi (though I could put names to fewer of them than I expected, to my own inner shame). The writing was not as technically demanding as that of Torriani’s Divertimento from Donizetti which had opened the concert, but the whole (some 14 or 15 minutes long) provided sophisticated musical entertainment. I suspect that the original Milanese audience, their ears well-attuned to the operatic music of their native land, would have lapped it up with some joy.

Glyn Pursglove

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