The Russian Romantic Flute
The inspiration behind this recording can be found in the sad but truthful statement that there exists great void in the Romantic literature for flute.
Virtually none of the great masters of the 19th century left a legacy for this beacon of lyricism. Concerning the Romantic era’s most consummate masters, Schubert and Chopin are the only two who engage the flute with a substantial composition. Of these, Schubert’s Introduction and Variations on “Trockne Blumen” is a wholly fulfilling masterwork, while Chopin’s Variations on “Non più mesta” seem trivial and commonplace in the context of his major piano works.
After these we turn to a tier of lesser-known composers that includes Reinecke, the Doppler brothers, and the French flute school of Taffanel, Gaubert and their compatriots. Once this too has been exhausted, flutists are forced to either sift through the vapid salon music of flutist composers such as Briccialdi and Demersseman or turn to transcription, typically the violin sonatas of Franck, Faure, and more recently Brahms.
This recording presents music from beyond this impoverished and overly traversed sphere, reaching to a world of Russian and Soviet post-romantic music seldom heard in the West. The works offered are a selection of unique miniatures contrasted by two more extended compositions, themselves illustrating a striking sense of contrast.
Rachmaninoff is the only major composer present, and along with Lyadov is represented through transcription.
Vladimir Tsybin (1877-1949) is a name highly revered among Russian flutists.
As a professor of flute at the Moscow Conservatory for nearly a quarter of a century, Tsybin taught and influenced generations of flutists and is regarded by some as the father of the Russian School of flute playing. His substantial compositional output includes the three Concerto Allegros for flute, Ten Concert Etudes for flute and piano, and other compositions.
Vasilenko’s Suite in Spring and Tsybin’s Concerto Allegro No 2 for an intriguing complement to one another in both basic conception and execution. Even the most cursory glance at these works reveals striking differences: programmatic vs. absolute, poetic vs. virtuosic, introspection vs. extroversion, five vignettes vs. a monolith.
Vasilenko’s Suite In Spring is a collection of intimate portraits whose subtle poetry succinctly captures the beauty and ever-changing colors of a newly awakening spring. While the titles of the first two movements bear no programmatic distinction, their moods are unmistakable. The opening "Prelude" is an incantation rousing nature from her winter slumber. A marked resemblance can be found between this prelude and the opening movement of Debussy’s Chanson de Bilitis. The 2nd movement "Waltz-Caprice", is a work of whimsy and fantasy. Here Vasilenko attains a sense of coquettishness through the juxtaposition of dark harmonies, languid rhythms, and naive gaiety. In movement 3, "Across the Desert" we find shades of Borodin. The starkness of a barren desert landscape is evoked through an opening staccato ostinato in 5/4 time. Atop this is laid an exotic melody suggesting an Asiatic caravan which distinctly contrasts with the simple and direct folk tune of the central section. The 4th movement, "In the Forest" is the most picturesque and descriptive of the set. A simple rising melody in the piano punctuates much of the movement and serves as an incantation stirring the mysteries of the forest. Here we encounter the songs of birds in an ever-shifting tempo and mood as we journey through the dark recesses of the forest. The final movement, "Spring Streams", depicts the torrential, rushing waters of the spring thaw. Here virtuosity finally steps into the foreground to animate this great yearly event.
In distinct contrast, Tsybin’s Concerto Allegro is much more forum for extroversion and serves as a grand monument to the unbridled virtuosity so characteristic of the Romantic era. Such intense display is simultaneously an attraction and a deterrent, for while we can feel exhilarated by its arresting spectacle, we also may judge such works harshly, often prematurely dismissing them as empty showpieces. To condemn such a work to obscurity would be greatly unjust; for whatever its shortcomings, this is a work of great merit and undeniable effect.
Formally, “Concerto Allegro No 2” is a well-crafted, large-scale sonata-allegro movement featuring an extensive cadenza. Throughout the pages of this majestic work Tsybin accentuates the flute’s brilliance, lyricism, and depth of sound by virtue of rich, expansive melodies and the opulent tapestries of passagework he creates. The culmination of Tsybin’s inspiration is manifested in a glorious cadenza highlighting the flute’s sensitivity, power and agility.
The concept of the etude can be traced back centuries as a pedagogical piece intended to overcome technical and artistic difficulties.
Such works were often dominated by the didactic intent amounting to dry technical exercises essential to physical development, but devoid of musical substance.
During the 19h century a metamorphosis was to occur as Chopin and Liszt transformed the etude into a dramatic work fit for the concert stage.
The concert etude has been embraced by composers even since and in Russia found a particularly potent line of champions leading from Lyapunov to Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Prokofiev and Stravinsky among others. It is from this lineage that Tsybin’s “Ten Concert Etudes” for flute and piano descend.
Among the four etudes presented here, two find their impetus of composition in the orchestral repertoire. Of these two “orchestral etudes” Etude No 7 is the more explicit, a fanciful extension of one of the most famous and characteristic flute solos in the repertoire, the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Using Mendelssohn’s melodic motif as a springboard, Tsybin creates a perpetual motion that transverses the entire range of the instrument, continually developing and modulating the leading motif while creating a curious effect through a flirtation between major and minor. It is both the brilliance of the harmonic and melodic turns and the subtle but essential interaction of the piano, which make this a brief masterwork.
Etude No. 1 is more remote in its origins, but by far the most ambitious piece of this
grouping. The melody is derived from a brief but fiendishly difficult flute solo in Richard
Strauss's “Merry Pranks of Till Eulenspiegel”. Formally an ABA structure, the outer sections deal with the Till theme and are permeated by imitation and development so intense that it takes on an almost fugal cloak. All of this activity is balanced by an expansive central section whose sensitive and lyrically arching themes are reminiscent of Edvard Grieg. This etude contains the most extensive and involved interplay between flute and piano in the set and culminates in a wild coda in which the Till motif penetrates nearly every measure.
On a calmer note, No. 8 "Nocturne", features a beautiful, elegant melody supported by arpeggiated piano figurations ripe with expressive dissonances. The saccharine qualities of the solo are subdued by a constantly shifting undercurrent affected through an asymmetry between the rhythmic and melodic figurations in the accompaniment. The repose of the primary theme is complemented by a central section marked piu mosso, in which the flute imparts a more urgent folk-like theme underscored by resonant harmonies in the piano.
Etude No.10 is an extremely concise work whose dark and turbulent passages are
strongly emotive. Finely crafted, the agitated opening eventually gives way to a feeling of whimsy and caprice as the theme develops. As an interesting aside, either by design or coincidence the 1st note of each of the descending figures of this etude's primary theme correspond precisely to the opening melody of Schubert's “Introduction and Variations”.
Coming as a refreshing antidote to Tsybin’s intense virtuosity, Anatoly Lyadov's “Prelude Op. 57”, transcribed by N. Platonov, is a poignant utterance of the most angelic simplicity. Gently flowing arpeggios in the piano support a sublime theme after whose climax the two melodic voices lock into a succession of thirds further enriched by a delicate inner voice. This brief piece is a perfect representation of Lyadov’s music, revealing a natural lyricism, refined sense of polyphony, and the gentle cross-rhythms which animate much of his music. This work reflects Chopin's powerful influence in Russia.
Ukrainian-Soviet composer Reinhold Gliere (1875-1956) blended folk inspiration with
Romantic tradition to create a style that established him as a successor to Tchaikovsky and the Russian Five. Composed in 1908, Gliere's Op.35 is a set of eleven pieces for various instruments and piano.
Reinhold Gliere's Op. 35, No.l, entitled “Melody”, is a colorful, lyrical piece whose primary thematic idea makes no less than five appearances. The great charm of this work flows from the radiant blossoming of its theme through an intricate embroidery of
counter-melody which accompanies each successive presentation. In its final statement the theme returns to a state of delicacy and simplicity. By way of contrast, the waltz that follows is of a more mercurial essence, employing three contrasting ideas in a
rondoesque format. The opening passage sets the tone implying an atmosphere of frivolity, soon confirmed by the primary theme with its continuously wandering contours and simple accompaniment. This initial caprice gives way to a somewhat darker episode marked by powerful chords in piano and surging arpeggios in the flute. The third theme is quite distinctive, marked meno mosso and eliciting an entirely different mood—one of lavish elegance. It is in this section that the flute and piano intertwine in an episode of contrapuntal splendor, a moment which elevates this brief waltz beyond the status of mere salon music.
After his hauntingly beautiful Vocalise, Rachmaninoff's song “Ne poy krasavitsa” ("Do Not Sing to Me, Beauty") is perhaps his melody most often borrowed by instrumentalists. “Ne poy krasavitsa” embodies Rachmaninoff's gift for seemingly
endless melodies colored by an inimitable Slavic pathos. The song opens with a tender
theme over descending chords and an extended pedal point. The effect created is stunning and captivating, one which disarms the listener for the passions which lie ahead. While instrumental transcription necessitates the absence of Pushkin's text, Rachmannoff’s music stands alone as a beautiful expression of its intent.
“Veshnie Vodi” (“Spring Waters”) is one of Rachmaninoff's most popular Romances. Inspired by Tyutchev's text, Rachmaninoff creates a powerful statement through vivid figurations and lean melodic lines in a celebration of the freshly rushing streams that herald the return of spring.
“Polka Italienne” has been performed by many generations of Russian musicians as a favorite encore. This piece rounds out the recording with what the English might refer to as a lollipop.