Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Introduction and Variations on “Trockne Blumen” [21:36]
Lowell LIEBERMANN (b.1961)
Flute Sonata [15:10]
Magnús Blöndal JÓHANNSSON (1925-2005)
Solitude, for solo flute [10:35]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Flute sonata [24:54]
Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson (flute)
Michael McHale (piano)
rec. 13-17 February 2013, Oktaven Audio, Yonkers, New York, USA
DELOS DE3447 [72:16]

Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson is principal flutist for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York. He’s performed Nielsen’s flute concerto under the baton of Vladimir Ashkenazy and served as a guest flutist with the Chicago and Los Angeles Symphonies. So, although you may have never heard his name before, it is in fact a mark of this recital’s very high quality. You can enter into this adventurous recital confident that you will enjoy it.

This CD is certainly adventurous, with four excellent pieces in diverse styles. Two will probably be new to many listeners. Lowell Liebermann’s flute sonata, dating from 1987, is structured like Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 2: a long slow movement and a short presto finale, neither outlasting their welcome. It’s a no-doubt masterpiece, its mood by turns mysterious and vivacious. The musical language reminds me of Prokofiev, in a darker mood than you’ll hear in the actual Prokofiev flute sonata.

The story behind Magnús Jóhannsson’s solo flute piece Solitude is as emotional as the work itself. Jóhannsson’s composing career was wrecked by the death of his wife and his subsequent descent into alcoholism. The booklet notes tell us that he “composed nothing between 1972 and 1980.” Then, after a rehabilitation program, he called flutist Manuela Wiesler, asked her to listen, and played all of Solitude on his synthesizer, with the phone next to the keyboard.

He describes the piece as “not self-pity or bitterness, but … a certain serenity” and that is certainly accurate. From a single repeated note, Jóhannsson weaves a series of long variations on a simple idea. The effect is calming, healing, and somehow evocative of tribal folk music. You might hear an echo of Bach’s flute partita after about 4:00, too. There are virtuosic effects in the piece, but they’re used sparingly, in service of the far-sighted, redemptive work Jóhannsson has built. It’s a great pity he could not have written more music like this.

The program concludes with Prokofiev’s 1943 Flute Sonata, a work which doesn’t give much hint of being written in wartime. Its buoyant good spirits and lyrical melodies guarantee that almost any performance will be likeable, but this one is especially good, the performers’ good taste and virtuosity in clear evidence. I’ve almost forgotten to mention the Schubert piece, because it’s probably one you have in your collection already, but rest assured it too is immaculately played.

Sound quality is superb, and pianist Michael McHale uses a Steinway Model B (the slightly smaller size preferred in smaller chamber recital halls). The booklet essay includes the rather moving story of Magnús Jóhannsson’s career and rehabilitation. Given how skilfully these two players execute an interesting, varied program, it’s very easy to give this top recommendation. Just don’t be surprised if the title track is your favorite.

Brian Reinhart

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