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Soaring sounds

Music | Three recent albums highlight the aesthetic and emotional range of the flute

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 6, 2014

The oldest precursors of the Western concert flute were fashioned from bone and ivory. “Aside from the voice,” quoth Wikipedia, they’re “the earliest known musical instruments.” And why not? The most musical nonhuman sound in ancient cultures was birdsong, and no instruments sound as much like birds as flutes do.

Nowadays, flutes are more likely to be made of silver or gold, but their uniquely avian expressiveness remains. Three recent releases on the MSR Classics label call attention to this very quality. They also demonstrate the instrument’s aesthetic and emotional range.

The most birdlike is Francesca Arnone’s Games of Light: Discovering Treasure for Solo Flute. Arnone begins with 15 selections—over half-an-hour’s worth—from Charles Koechlin’s Les Chants de Nectaire, Op. 198 (1944), and continues with works by Arthur Willner (Sonate für Flöte Allein, Op. 34 [1926]) and the film composers William Alwyn (Divertimento for Solo Flute [1939]) and Miklos Rozsa (Sonata per Flauto Solo, Op. 39 [1983]).

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So lyrical are the melodies and so sensitive does Arnone render them that, although they span nearly six decades and represent French (Koechlin), Czechoslovakian (Willner), British (Alwyn), and Hungarian (Rozsa) sensibilities, they feel like birds of a feather. Oblivious to the terrestrial turmoil preoccupying their two-legged unfeathered friends, they soar, dip, plunge, and glide with improvisational freedom and grace. Neil Diamond’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull soundtrack is heavy metal by comparison.

On Awakening: 21st Century Slovenian Flute Music, Nicole Molumby surrounds the flute with string bass, bassoon, clarinet, piano, and oboe. Rather than weighing her down or clipping her wings, however, they feather her nest.

Blaž Pucihar, three of whose pieces Molumby performs, is her pianist, so inter-ensemble sympathy abounds. “His compositions are fresh, innovative, and heart warming,” writes Molumby in the liner notes, and she’s right.

She was also right to have Pucihar arrange Peter Kopač’s restlessly somber “Romanca” for flute, piano, and string bass. Chaucer’s “smale fowles” that “maken melody” and “slepen al the night with open ye” come to mind. The same goes for her rendition of Črt Sojar Voglar’s exhilarating solo-flute “Prebujanje Narave”—that is, when it’s not evoking mating calls.

The most challenging of MSR’s flute trilogy is the New York City flautist Andrew Bolotowsky’s The Praying Mantis and the Bluebird, mainly because it’s subtitled “The Flute Music of Beth Anderson,” and Beth Anderson is a most challenging composer.

Consider “Preparation for the Dominant: Outrunning the Inevitable.” Despite lasting only five minutes and being sandwiched by the comparatively simple flute-and-piano “Lullaby for the Eighth Ancestor” and “Dr. Blood’s Mermaid Lullaby,” it will test listeners’ patience. Anderson’s liner explanation of the composition’s goals and the reasons behind them are illuminating, but the piece still feels like an experimental exercise in minimalism that only partly justifies its grating repetition.

Anderson has her easy moments. The title piece, on which she accompanies Bolotowsky on piano, evokes its subjects’ delicacy and beauty. And while many of the selections reflect her fascination with John Cage-ian indeterminacy, they’re engagingly playful. The 20-minute “Skate Suite” (for baroque flute, alto recorder, baroque cello, and harpsichord) delights even at its strangest.

For the less-ambitious flute fan, there’s the new release by the Alabama-born, church-reared, smooth-jazz flautist Sherry Reeves. Simply titled Sherry Reeves (CD Baby), the album finds her capably wafting throughout and atop gently sparkling electronic accompaniment.

Her challenge: to disperse the dentist-office atmosphere that hovers above all but her liveliest rhythms. The highlight: the Latin-tinged, rhythmically lively “Aqua Verde,” which could qualify her as Tim Weisberg’s (musical) twin sister.

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