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  • Colin Clarke, Fanfare Magazine

"Muñoz and Butt are magnificent"

 

Five stars: The disc is beautifully presented and the recording is excellent; performances are faultless


"The concept of freedom has been relevant to many recently—not just in war situations, but via the restrictions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and it is from the latter that the present project, Libertad, was born. Each of the composers here had to deal with some level of oppression or adverse social bias in the realization of his or her music. Both Mel Bonis and Clara Schumann encountered pronounced bias against their gender in the compositional field; Sofia Gubaidulina was long banned by the Composers Association of the Soviet Union; Amy Beach had to give up a concert career due to societal norms, but continued to compose. Ilse Weber is a Theriesenstadt composer: In that camp, she advocated for and comforted the sick. One piece is a commission specific to the two performers on this Ars SACD: The Bird Fancyer’s New Delight by David Braid deals with the concept of songbirds in captivity, of blinding them so they could be taught certain melodies to entertain humans and then sold to the aristocracy.

Guided by these composers’ resilience, flutist Maria Cecilia Muñoz and pianist Tiffany Butt provide a fascinating, variegated 70 minutes. The French composer Mélanie Hélène Bonis (1858–1937) had her works published as either “Mel Bonis” or “M. Bonis,” taking gender-specificity out of the equation. It was César Franck, no less, who supported her move to the Paris Conservatoire, where she attended the composition class of Ernest Guiraud. Unfortunately, an enforced marriage curtailed her studies, but did not stop her composing; her catalog numbers some 300 compositions. The performance of her objectively-named Pièce, op. 189, by Muñoz and Butt is seemingly perfect in tempo and feel. They just create a little more atmosphere than Juliette Hurel and Hélène Couvert on their Alpha disc Compositrices à l’Aube du XXe Siècle. It is perhaps telling that Bonis’s op. 189 was composed around 1936 but only published in the year 2000. Her possibly contemporaneous Une flûte soupire, op. 121, is as brief as it is magical. It is about two minutes long: Over on Hänssler, on a disc entitled La joueuse du flûte, Tatjana Rihland and Florian Wiek take more time (2:20 against 1:57) and appear a touch too languorous.

There is something of an enigma attached to Bonis’s Scherzo (finale), op. posth. 187. It is undated (published in 2008) and its original title is “Finale”; but there are no preceding movements so the publisher, Kossack, labelled it “Scherzo.” It is lovely, whatever the more gnarly aspects to its history, with a fluent piano part (lightly dispatched by Butt); it exudes a playful agility, modified by a flowing flute melody over watery piano arpeggiations. The two players here are in perfect accord: When Bonis asks for a sudden burst of staccato, there is no doubt of that whatsoever. It is definitely a good thing that this disc will substantially increase Bonis’s listings in the Fanfare Archive. One wonders what else is out there.

The ink should still be wet on Canadian composer David Braid’s The Bird Fancyer’s New Delight. (I’m hoping that if he uses archaic spellings like that, he uses manuscript paper and pencil, too.) It was written in 2023 and premiered by the present performers in the famous Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires in August that year. The inspiration is an anthology of the titular name by the English composer John Walsh (c. 1655–1736). It comprises pieces aimed to be played at specific birds (and so takes in registral considerations). Canaries, linnets bull-finches, wood larks, blackbirds, thrushes, nightingales (inevitably), and starlings are all targeted. The pieces were not only by Walsh: Henry William Williams, Angelo Michele Bartolotti, Jacques-Martin Hotteterre, Rameau, Uccellini, Purcell, and Monteverdi are all included in there. Bird calls and descriptions of habitats are also part of the equation. Braid took five melodies and put them through the kaleidoscope of his own present-century psyche. The first, “Clock-Caged Canary,” plays with mechanistic writing fetchingly. Butt has a wonderfully light touch, so that when flute and piano exchange motifs they blend perfectly. The second movement is intriguingly titled “Canary PTSD” and demonstrates perfectly how Braid takes source material and translates it into our own time, where PTSD is a major concern. The resonances of flute and piano are intermingled, creating a sense of isolation that reflects the bird’s plight. The long flute solo implies the piano will be an adjunct, a sonic carrier, but there are cat-and-mouse games that elevate that role. It only lasts 1:15 but encapsulates the essence of the disc. The ensuing “Woodlark Dogfight” is a display of duo virtuosity. Braid’s demands cannot be easy, and Muñoz and Butt are magnificent. “Trosill’s Wing” is the slow movement of the set, a dignified lament. Finally, “Country Linnett” pecks away nicely; clear tonal arrivals are offset by rapid, tangy melodic lines. It might be worth mentioning that this is not the David Braid whose music I have enjoyed on both Toccata Classics (Fanfare 36:4) and Metier (41:4) releases; that one was born in Wales in 1970. Our present Canadian incarnation here was born in 1975.

It is lovely to hear Clara Schumann’s relatively well-known op. 22 Romanzen (1853) played here on flute and piano. The original was for violin and piano, and Clara and the young virtuoso Joseph Joachim played them many times together. This adds a touch of tenderness to pieces that are already dripping with Innigkeit. There is a quote included in the first Romance from Robert Schumann’s Violin Sonata in A Minor, op. 105 (the booklet notes don’t make it clear that this is by Robert, though they have already stated that Clara only wrote the Romanzen and her Piano Trio in the chamber music field). Anyway, these are winning performances, especially the softly fragrant central Allegretto, in the context of this piece and heard directly after the Braid, chirruping away. Muñoz’ phrasing is deliciously individual in this movement. The final Romanze is fast yet initially somewhat emotionally laden; which makes the tripping, Spring-like section all the more rewarding. The marking is “Leindenschaflich schnell,” which Muñoz and Butt project perfectly. Clara’s set of Romanzen transcribes well: Hansjörg Schellenberger and Rolf Koenen recorded them effectively in an oboe and piano version for Campanella Musica, for example. Flutist Jeffey Kahner made his own arrangement that he recorded for Avie with pianist Charles Abramovic, which was not particularly enjoyed by Jerry Dubins in Fanfare 29:4. Muñoz and Butt make a perfectly persuasive case, and the placement of Clara’s music in their program is exemplary.

Placement is all, and Sofia Gubaidulina’s sprightly, modernistic Allegro rustico, heard after Clara’s outpourings, allows for especial relishing of her tart dissonances. I particularly enjoyed Tiffany Butt’s attention to detail throughout this performance, and the cumulative energy the pair of performers bring to the piece overall. Ars’ superb, crystal-clear recording really helps to enjoy each and every nuance. This is now my reference recording of this piece.

It is always wonderful to see the name of Amy Beach in a program. Her 1896 Sonata in A Minor for Violin and Piano, op. 34, is a major piece of chamber music, lasting over half an hour in this gorgeous, affectionate performance. The version for flute and piano is by the performers themselves, and both exude a clear love of the score. The mix of lyrical warmth and an ability to place melodies and gestures within a larger stricture is key to the success of this performance. From the micro-scale of nuance and dovetailed phrases to the macro-scale of inter-movemental contrast, Muñoz and Butt realize it all. Muñoz is capable of real ardent delivery in the first movement. and Butt is fully conversant with the difficult piano part while never overpowering her companion. The Scherzo positively scampers; the performance is a complete triumph, with the Trio being arguably more haunting on flute than on violin. “Largo con dolore” Beach asks for the slow movement, and Butt’s opening is beautifully expansive while definably dolorous. The magic truly comes when Muñoz comes in. It is less an instrumental entrance and more like a whispering in the ear. Beach’s harmony is so carefully calibrated here: Micro-adjustments make maximal emotive effect, and the players realize that fully, in the process unlocking the music’s ability to touch, to sooth, and maybe even to heal. It is spellbinding; one almost does not notice that the harmonies are perfectly revealed, and yet atmosphere is retained via Butt’s masterly pedaling technique. The fairly extended finale (8:13) is heard in the white light of unrestrained ebullience; the ending is appropriately grand and head-on.

Finally, Ilse Weber’s Ich wandre durch Theriesenstadt was a song to raise spirits at that concentration camp. Weber volunteered as a nurse in the hospital there. In her arrangement, Tiffany Butt expands beautifully and respectfully on Weber’s poignant original. It makes for the most touching musical farewell.

The disc is beautifully presented and the recording is excellent; performances are faultless. A very, very fine disc indeed."




 


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