Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Paula Robison and Katherine Chi play Griffes, Lanier, Taffanel and Franck at NEC’s Jordan Hall

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Paula Robison and Katherine Chi. Photo Jesse Weiner.
Paula Robison and Katherine Chi. Photo Jesse Weiner.

Paula Robison, flute
Katherine Chi, piano
NEC’s Jordan Hall, September 25, 2011 – 2 pm

Griffes – Poem for flute and piano
Three Tone-Pictures, Op. 5, for solo piano
Lanier – Wind Song for solo flute
Taffanel – Fantasy on Themes from Weber’s Der Freischutz, for flute and piano
Franck – Sonata in A Major for flute and piano

POSTED: Paula Robison talks to Michael Miller, a Podcast interview

Although Katherine Chi played Charles T. Griffes’ Three Tone-Pictures, Op. 5, for solo piano, there could be no question that this program was primarily a feast of specialized flute repertoire. (Simply hearing the sounds of Paula Robison’s playing in Jordan Hall’s extraordinary acoustic is enough to make this an exciting event.) One piece, Sidney Lanier’s “Windsong,” is even known relatively little outside Paula Robison’s flute recitals. Paul Taffanel (1844-1908) is remembered primarily as a great flute virtuoso, who developed the modern technique of playing the Boehm flute and modifications thereof—the foundations of the instrument and technique that prevail today. While Taffanel sought above all to enrich the emotional content of flute music and to extend the expressive capabilities of the instrument, he composed much of his music for technical display at his own recitals and as exercises for his students. Nonetheless the appeal of the concert went far beyond the immediate concerns of flute-players and their pupils and offered a wealth of insights, which were both fascinating in relation to music as imagined and constructed by the composer and as re-created within the specificities of acoustics, instrument, and player, and deeply moving as expressions of the human spirit. Paula Robison is unquestionably one of the great living flute virtuosi, one who has dedicated years to exploring the technique of the instrument, to teaching, and to writing textbooks, but she is also a deeply-read humanist with many diverse interests in all the arts and in art’s relation to humanity. Like Taffanel and her own teacher, Marcel Moyse, who studied with Taffanel, she has worked to extend the tonal range of the flute even beyond what she first mastered, and to render it fully capable of expressing the subtlest nuances of human feeling through phrasing and tone-color, which, in her playing, are so closely-related as to be inseparable.

These values immediately came to the fore in Griffes’ Poem for flute and piano, an arrangement of a work for flute and orchestra, which he finished in 1918. It was premiered in this form in late 1919. This arrangement for flute and piano, the only version available until Schirmer finally published the orchestral score in 1951, is attributed to Georges Barrère, the flutist who performed the orchestral version at its premiere.* Schirmer was pressuring Griffes for a piano reduction at the time he entered the sanatorium in his final bout with tuberculosis. Barrère was also a close friend of the composer’s, and he visited him at the sanatorium. Hence there is some reason to believe that the arrangement is close to Griffes’ intentions, and that he advised Barrère as he was preparing it. On the hand there are over eighty discrepancies between the orchestral and the piano scores. I mention this specifically because the piano version, as Katherine Chi and Paula Robison played it, seemed entirely idiomatic, and there were many passages of tight interaction between the players, which would not be possible to realize, even by the most virtuosic chamber ensemble. As they played it, the Poem seemed more cogent and powerful than the dreamier, more diffuse impression of the full score.

In Katherine Chi, Robison has found a collaborator with a strong personality, one who projects a well-defined view of her own. From this foundation she reached out to Robison in finding full realization of this emotionally complex work, in which the flute is fundamentally the voice of a human individual, who feels, responds to, and spiritually intervenes in the natural world expressed by the piano/orchestra. This flute-person is at times receptive (rather than passive) and at times actively injecting her perception or feeling into the environment. Griffes’ notions of native American customs and music come into play here. In the end, one cannot have asked for a more probing exploration of the Poem’s many constantly-transforming moods. Ms. Chi’s playing of the somewhat more delicate Op. 5 drew our attention away from the flute into Griffes’ personal manifestation of impressionism.

Sidney Lanier is in a way a “discovery” of Paula Robison’s. While it was known that Lanier, amidst his polymathic activities as a linguist, a poet, a literary critic, and a flute player, wrote down compositions for the flute, one of which was published, there was no access to these papers at Johns Hopkins University until 1989. Ms. Robison edited these scores, working together with Patricia Harper in 1997 Universal Editions). Lanier wrote “Wind Song” as an audition piece for Leopold Damrosch, for whom he played it in New York in October 1874—with success. Damrosch offered him a position, which Lanier wasn’t able to take, because of ill-health—the tuberculosis that was to kill him at the age of 39. Lanier was self-taught as a flutist and a composer, and the freedom this gave him brought a certain eccentricity along with it as well. Before she discovered the music, she had some knowledge of Lanier’s poetry, and she immediately recognized that the character of his rhapsodic flute music was the same. There is no harmonic structure or any other established form. “Windsong” has to capture our attention and draw us along with it through its contrasting moods and gestures. Again Robison brought her tremendous command of sound and expression to bear on a piece that was both virtuosic display and a poetic response to nature.

Paul Taffanel’s Fantasy on Themes from Weber’s Der Freischütz came as a total surprise. I was expecting a display piece which may have had a few moments of musical interest, but the Fantasy turned out to be something rather more substantial, an intelligent, well-constructed hommage to Weber’s lovely and stirring music. Taffanel’s unfolding of the famous tunes followed neither the dramatic sequence of the opera, nor some Lisztian dream, in which the composer’s response to an evening at the opera materialized in the flow of his remembered emotions. The Fantasy is also a work demanding the highest virtuosity, lengthy physical exertions, and, it is to be hoped, taste in phrasing and dramatic expression. Even the Wolf’s Glen scene is evoked. Before she put the flute to her mouth, Robison confessed that this was the first time she was to play it in public, and a familiar religious gesture made it clear how difficult she had found it. In playing it, she made no attempt to make it seem easy—most likely that is impossible, and in any case, it’s not the point. She measured up to all to the work’s fiendish demands, but never deflected her attention from its best musical values. While the Griffes and the Lanier showed Robison’s mastery of dramatic pauses and expression, the Fantasy gave her an opportunity to combine this with a sense of musical structure. Played in this way, this universally dreaded flautist’s nightmare was musically rewarding for the audience.

The Franck Sonata in A Major for flute and piano is of course an arrangement of the famous violin sonata—one which has been around for some years. Robison has, like many flutists, adapted the score to suit her own technique and point of view. Again, the musical core of the sonata came first, beginning with its impeccable construction. It is not only one of the most successful examples of Franck’s version of Lisztian cyclical form, it is an elegant expressive realization of the violin’s best qualities. It is the sort of piece everybody wants to play. Hence it has been played on a considerable variety of instruments. (The cello transcription was the only one the composer approved.) The flute is at least similar in range to a violin, but its character as a single-reed instrument is entirely different. Robison’s vast repertory of color, especially in the lower registers, successfully translated the strokes of resined horse hair on gut and metal to her own modulated columns of air. To my mind the most difficult challenge would be the vigorous, broad return fo the arching theme from the third movement in the middle section of the last, which seems really to need the expanse of a violinist’s arm and bow to sing out with its full intensity. I was amazed by the physical power Robison was able to bring to its large jumps, and her building-up of energy was entirely realized. Still, it was clearly a translation into a very different foreign tongue. It’s best not to fuss over the impossible, on the other hand, and to remember how beautifully Robison phrased the main theme of that final movement, and what a glowing range of shot colors she brought to it, not to mention the first movement, her incredible playing of the third movement recitative, and all the rest. Chi’s work at the piano invigorated the performance even further—not that it needed it—with her decisive phrasing and rhythm, not to mention the gorgeous sound she produced from the NEC’s Hamburg Steinway.

The Franck was a rich conclusion to an extremely ambitious program, both technically and musically. Not many instrumentalists would take on anything like it without a good reason. Why learn Taffanel’s Freischütz Fantasy when it’s been so long since she had anything to prove? “Keeping fresh,” is her answer. There was one lesson her students should never forget. Another may have been more explicitly stated in her classes, but was amply conveyed in every bar she played, and that is to read some books, go to museums, never forget that the notes on the page belong to an intricate weave of the composer’s own culture and our own.

*Priore, Irna. “Griffes’ Poem: Considerations about Performance Practice” in Flutist Quarterly, Volume XXI, No. 3, Spring 1996, 61-66.

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