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S & H Recital Review

J S Bach, Lowell Liebermann, Anne Boyd & Theobald Boehm, RCM, 22nd March 2002 (CN)

Katherine Bicknell – flute
Andrew Zolinsky – piano
Peter Graham – violin
Timothy Murray - harpsichord

A flute recital with half the programme dedicated to modern composers was never going to be a sell out but for those of us there this was an absorbing concert.

The first piece in this concert was Bach’s ‘Trio Sonata from "Musical Offering"’. It was not an authentic performance in terms of style or instrumentation and – although I am not a strong advocate of period performances – it suffered for this. Although harpsichord made up a part of the continuo, this was matched by modern instruments on the violin, ‘cello and flute and perhaps too little attention was paid to the effects of this. Consequently, in the allegros of the second and fourth movements, the clarity of the semi-quavers was lost and the balance was often texturally heavy, sometimes losing the harpsichord altogether and not allowing the flute and violin counterpoints to speak clearly enough. This was indeed a shame as the slow movements were beautifully executed.

The concert finished with the ‘Grande Polonaise’ by Boehm, the man responsible for the development of the modern flute. Whilst experimenting with new key systems he composed several virtuosic pieces, of which this is one, to test the systems out. These were more technically difficult than the works preceding it, although musically insubstantial, and Bicknell delivered the piece with as much virtuoso display and tongue-in-cheek characterisation as the piece deserved. She handled technically difficult passages with ease and my only problem with the performance was the occasionally insensitive accompaniment by Andrew Zolinsky which I felt was lazy given the ease of his part. It was occasional though, and on the whole he complimented her well in a good finale to the concert.

However, whilst these first and last pieces were essentially standard fare, it was in the middle two that Bicknell really relaxed and came into her own. The Lowell Liebermann ‘Solilioquy’, commissioned in 1993 by Katherine Kemler, is an unaccompanied fantasy written without bar lines, allowing the musician real freedom in interpretation. Bicknell took every advantage of this and successfully too; despite the lack of bar lines, there was a strong sense of rhythm, or, more particularly, of timing – achieved without sacrificing the fantastical element. It is a highly repetitive piece - built from the first few notes - but an unpretentious approach and imaginative phrasing made interesting a potentially tedious piece, whilst her range of dynamics served to add a new dimension.

Of course, the usual quibble with unaccompanied wind solos is the problem of breathing. Composers (and Liebermann is no exception) happily ignore this problem leaving it in the court of the musician to try and breathe without interrupting phrases with audible gasps or leaving large, gaping holes in the music. Bicknell, rather than shying away, tackled this head-on. The feeling of space she managed to create in the piece helped this problem but it was more her incorporation of breathing actually into the music that was impressive. Breaths, where taken, were music, not gaps, not embarrassing silences.

Anne Boyd’s ‘Red Sun, Chill Wind’, based on a poem of the same name by the Japanese poet Basho is a very atmospheric piece, but is little more than that. Its main claim to being standard repertoire is its clever use of modern techniques in aiding the atmosphere, but these techniques were used very repetitively and again the success of the performance was down to the strength of Bicknell’s musical interpretation: as with the Liebermann (and dare I add the Bach?) it would have been dull in less capable hands.

The programme left Bicknell with no hiding place; there was no piece that ‘played itself’, instead needing 100% from her at all times. This she gave and the result was a striking display of musical ability.

Christa Norton

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