American Flute Quintets = JOAN TOWER: Rising for flute and string quartet; ARTHUR FOOTE: Two Pieces for flute and string quartet; AMY BEACH: Theme and Variations, Op. 80, for flute and string quartet – Carol Wincenc, flute/ Kevin Lawrence and Carolyn Stuart, violin/ Sheila Brown, viola/ Brooks Whitehouse, cello – Bridge 9373, 52:08 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Technically, the title of this collection includes something of a misnomer since none of the works on the disc is a quintet in the accepted sense of the word. Also, I guess one could observe that the program is a little unbalanced, featuring two sedate post-Brahmsian pieces alongside a very much contemporary work (2010) by a composer known for her brawny pieces for orchestra such as the 1991 Concerto for Orchestra. But in practice the contrasts make for a stimulating program, and there’s an odd synergy between the works by the two women on the program.
Joan Tower describes the thinking behind Rising: “I have always been interested in how music can ‘go up’. . . . One can’t, however, just go up. There should be a counteracting action which is either going down or staying the same to provide a tension within the piece. . . . The main theme in Rising is an ascent motion using different kinds of scales– mostly octatonic or chromatic—and occasionally arpeggios. These upward motions are put through different filters, packages of time and varying static and downward motions.” This sounds like a new approach to theme-and-variations, and it rather develops that way, making it an interesting foil to Amy Beach’s for-real set of variations on a theme from her own composition An Indian Lullaby. As Frederick Noonan suggests in his notes to the recording, Beach gives her variations a clever twist, assigning the quartet to “the subdued four-part song, while the flute enters brilliant with a dramatic cadenza and a theme of its own.” Through the course of six variations, the two themes are exchanged between flute and quartet until the instruments mesh quiescently in the longish coda.
Odd man out, then, in more ways than one, is Arthur Foote, whose Two Pieces of 1918 are distinct and discrete enough that the second piece, Scherzo, was later given a separate existence in a version for orchestra. The first, A Nocturne, sounds about as up-to-date as Foote ever did in his chamber music. His string quartets and works for piano and strings show the decided influence of Brahms and earlier Romantics, but A Nocturne has a diaphanous sound quality, a sinuosity of melodic line, that could almost be called Impressionistic, though Foote’s harmonic language isn’t quite that advanced. The same lightness of touch carries over into the Scherzo—a scherzo of Mendelssohnian lightness allied with an openness of texture that would be the hallmark of later American music from Copland to John Adams.
In all this music, Carol Wincenc plays with eminently good taste and beauty of tone, plus impeccable technical skill. Her partners from the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival of Vermont fit her style and execution like the proverbial glove. Very, very nice, right down to Bridge’s natural-sounding recording from University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
In celebration of 150 Years, Vaughan Williams!