Rouse: Flute Concerto (SACD review)

Also, Ibert: Concerto for Flute and Orchestra; Debussy: Syrinx; Martin: Ballade. Katherine Bryan, flute; Jac van Steen, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Linn Records CKD 420.

There may be a few names here with which you’re unfamiliar. Let’s begin with Christopher Rouse (b. 1949). He’s a prominent American composer currently teaching at the Juilliard School, who has seen his music recorded by nearly a dozen record labels. Katherine Bryan is the Principal Flute of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and for the past decade or so has also been pursuing a successful solo career in the concert hall and on recordings. Jac van Steen (b. 1956) is a Dutch conductor who has been the Music Director of Het Nationale Ballet in Amsterdam, a faculty member at the Royal Conservatory of music and dance in The Hague, the Chief Conductor of the N├╝rnberger Symphoniker, the Music Director of the Neues Berliner Kammerorchester, the Music Director of Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar, the Chief Conductor of the Staatskapelle Weimar, the Chief Conductor of the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur, the Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and currently the General Music Director of the Dortmund Philharmonic Orchestra. As for Linn Records, you may know their high-end audio products, especially the famous Linn-Sondek turntables, more than you know their recordings, but I can assure you the recordings are every bit as good as their turntables, amps, preamps, speakers, and the like.

So, the present album comes with a prestigious pedigree.

Things begin with Rouse’s Flute Concerto (1993), which he wrote as the continuation of a series of pieces based on deaths that profoundly influenced him. The Concerto was Rouse’s response to the death of a two-year-old English boy murdered by two older boys. The Concerto is sweet and largely melodic, Rouse being something of a Romantic, and it’s written in an unusual (well, unusual for a concerto) five-movement arrangement. The work appears to have now become a part of the general flute repertoire, meaning that if you are a flutist (or flautist, if you prefer), you will probably perform and maybe record the piece at some point in your career.

Ms. Bryan is a flutist of the first order, her playing sensitive and flowing. She handles the Rouse Concerto in a like manner. The flute enters almost immediately, wistful and slightly melancholy, Ms. Bryan giving it an achingly beautiful turn. Interestingly, each of the five movements provides the listener with a different mood, so after the brief, slow introspection of the first movement, handled mostly by the flute, we get a stricter tone in the second movement, in which the orchestra plays a much bigger part. Still, Ms. Bryan's flute dances along within the proceedings at a fairly good clip, the music building to something of a frenzy, I assume representing the boy's death. The central and longest movement, marked Elegia, is a serious lament on the senseless killing. Again, we hear a warm, fluid voice from Ms. Bryan's flute as the melody takes flight and hovers for its few minutes' duration, as the whole thing builds to a huge climax before falling off into quiet. The fourth movement is a Scherzo, utilizing a number of percussive effects to punctuate the flute, and it serves to highlight Ms. Bryan's skillful playing talents. The final movement provides another slow, lyrical, spiritual note, much as the first movement had, but sounding more Celtic in its mood and phrasing.

Ms. Byran helps us understand why Rouse's Flute Concerto has entered the basic repertoire; it's sincere, direct, and moving. The composer says about the piece, "In a world of daily horrors too numerous and enormous to comprehend en masse, it seems that only isolated, individual tragedies serve to sensitise us to the potential harm man can do to his fellow. I followed this case closely during the time I was composing my concerto and was unable to shake the horror of these events from my mind."

The disc’s accompanying works are no less accomplished in Ms. Bryan's hands. The Concerto for Flute and Orchestra by Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) presents a contrast to the more-solemn Rouse piece. The Ibert is lighter, livelier, and more humorous, yet it offers Ms. Bryan an equal challenge in virtuosic demands. The album concludes with two short solo works, the first, Syrinx, by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and the second, Ballade, by Frank Martin (1890-1974), both of which Ms. Bryan plays with a strong emotional fluency, always graceful and poignant. As with the entire program, they afford the flutist ample opportunity to show off her versatility to good effect.

Linn Records producer and engineer Phillip Hobbs recorded this hybrid two-channel stereo and multichannel SACD in October 2012 at Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, UK. The sound in the two-channel SACD mode to which I listened is wonderfully airy, focused, and glowing, everything you'd expect from an audiophile recording. Ms. Bryan’s flute appears almost in the room with the listener, the orchestra realistically providing the needed support at an appropriately lifelike distance behind her. When the orchestra does come into its own, it does so with a commendable transparency, yet there is always a compensating ambient bloom from the hall that mitigates any possible hardness or harshness that the clarity could bring with it. The orchestral depth is good, the width (or spread) is natural for the moderate miking distance involved, and the dynamic range, frequency response, and transient impact are all exemplary.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa