United Kingdom Stanley, Benjamin, Anderson, Poulenc, Wood: Michael Cox (flute), Zoe Smith (piano), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 2.12.2014 (GP)
John Stanley – Solo in D: Adagio and Allegro
George Benjamin – Flight
Julian Anderson – The Colour of Pomegranates
Francis Poulenc – Villanelle
Sonata for Flute and Piano
Daniel M. Wood – Valse Caprice
Michael Cox is undoubtedly one of the finest flautists of his generation. His standing is such that he is simultaneously principal flute of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields and the London Sinfonietta, as well as being Professor of Flute at the Royal Academy. He is also much in demand as a chamber musician and a recitalist, so it was something of a coup that the RWCMD had managed to book him to give a recital in their programme of lunchtime concerts. A recital which paired him with the admirable Zoe Smith, an accomplished and experienced accompanist, and Head of Interdisciplinary Practice at the Royal Welsh College was an enticing prospect and high expectations were certainly fulfilled in the actual performance. Cox, magnificently moustachioed (this was no charitable Movember leftover) is an absolute master in terms of both his technical accomplishment and his musicality. The audience for this recital seemed to contain a higher proportion of students than usual – a good thing, since there was much to be learned!
Cox’s programme began with music from one of John Stanley’s solos for flute and continuo. The initial adagio was full of long melodic lines, elegantly structured and phrased. The allegro was excitingly agile and vivacious. The historical and stylistic range of the music of which Cox is an accomplished interpreter was evident in the next two pieces he played. Stanley’s decidedly ‘English’ music was followed by a more modern English work which displays a considerable French influence. George Benjamin’s Flight was written in 1979, just after Benjamin’s period of study with Olivier Messiaen in Paris. So ‘avian’ a title as Flight leads one to expect, perhaps particularly in a piece for flute, a work full of allusions to birdsong. However, although there are passages of avian dialogue, as it were, in this piece it is the soaring flight of birds that Benjamin is concerned with, more than their singing. The piece reflects the composer’s excited awe at his first sight of eagles flying above the Alps. Flight begins in near stillness and then builds in volume and tempo, as well as in angularity of line, before settling back into a stillness and repose reminiscent of its opening. The ‘fury’ of the piece’s central section seems to speak both of the sound of the eagles and of their disciplined violence of energy. The whole was played -by soloist and accompanist – with impressive virtuosity and imagination, without ever forfeiting or losing an impressive sense of larger shape and design.
Cox and Smith continued with a piece by a younger British composer: Julian Anderson’s The Colour of Pomegranates, written in 1994. More than a little of Anderson’s best work (such as his excellent Alhambra Fantasy) involves a kind of aural ekphrasis – the musical re-creation (not necessarily involving direct ‘representation’) – of a strong visual impression, particularly of something man-made. In this case Anderson’s piece was, I believe, written as a response to a scene in the 1968 film The Colour of Pomegranates by the Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov in which a peasant sits on a cupola and plays his flute in a kind of dialogue with the church bells ringing below. There is some particularly fine writing for the lower end of the flute’s register and some moments of richly coloured lushness, as well as some near growls and moments at the instrument’s high end when whispered notes fade into silence. This was a very striking piece, excellently played.
Poulenc’s brief Villanelle (1934) is only a little over two minutes long and for this Cox picked up his piccolo. The piece is a delightful miniature, its lyricism being gracefully artificial, the whole like a remarkable musical toy. I think I have only heard 3 or 4 previous performances of this piece (including recorded ones), so it may not seem that I am claiming very much if I say that I cannot remember any more charming interpretation of it. Perhaps my enjoyment of this performance can be expressed more forcefully if I say that I don’t, either, anticipate hearing a more satisfying account of it in the future. Villanelle was originally contributed to a collection of works for pipe and piano – it is sometimes played on the recorder – but Cox was an immensely persuasive advocate for the piccolo as the best instrument for the piece.
Cox’s second choice from Poulenc – the 1957 Sonata for Flute and Piano – is an altogether more substantial piece. It involves some complex conversational interplay between flute and piano and Cox and Smith (not a regular partnership) passed with flying colours all the tests Poulenc set for interpreters of his sonata. The first movement (marked allegro malinconico) includes some writing for the flute in which the fingering is decidedly tricky – though the innocent listener would not have realised this from watching or hearing Michael Cox. In the second movement (Cantilena: assez lent) a motif in quavers on the piano sets the musical agenda, which develops initially as a graceful melody both simple and grand. Having recently been reading Dick Sullivan’s (warmly recommended) 2010 book Undertones: Mild Mysticism in an Age of Umber, which discusses a kind of ‘lesser’ mysticism, distinct from, but related to, that of the great mystics, I found myself wanting to adopt, and adapt, his terminology and describe this movement as an example of the ‘mild sublime’. The fiery exchanges at the beginning of the third movement (Presto giocoso) take us into very different territory, full of vivacity, vigour, dynamic shifts, melodic twists and turns – in short of the kind of ‘serious’ playfulness very characteristic of Poulenc’s musical ‘wit’. The work of both musicians was exemplary here, and at the close of this demanding, brilliant movement both seemed to rejoice in the other’s work and the success of their partnership, just as much as their audience certainly did.
The recital ended with a piece I didn’t previously know at all (which may say more about my ignorance than about anything else): Daniel M. Wood’s ‘Valse Caprice’. Daniel Wood (1872-c.1927) was the younger brother, ,y some ten years) of Haydn Wood and was principal flute of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1910 to 1926, when lung problems forced his retirement. I haven’t been able to pin down the exact date of composition of his Valse Caprice, which turned out to be a charmingly witty and elegant ‘dance’, which ended with a dazzling section tossed off with almost frightening ease by Cox. Wood was also author the book of Studies for Facilitating the Execution of the Upper Notes of the Flute and as professor at the Royal Academy, one of his pupils was William Alwyn. Wood’s engaging ‘piece received a performance full of both charm and capricious wit. For me, at least, it was a delightful and unexpected conclusion to a top-class recital.