Saturday, February 8, 2020

“Music Around the World” With Flute and Harp

Susan Greenberg (l); Cristina Montes Mateo (r).

Susan Greenberg and
Cristina Montes Mateo,
First Fridays at First!–fff,
First Lutheran Church, Torrance

It was good to see a larger audience than usual at a Classical Crossroads’ “First Friday” recital welcome the flutist Susan Greenberg and harpist Cristina Montes Mateo for their February concert, a skillfully selected and effervescent program of six short pieces from as many countries. And if in part it was a bit like the musical equivalent of a taster gift pack, then I for one would welcome a full helping of any of the items excerpted.

Adrian Shaposhnikov.
First up was the middle, Menuetto, movement of the Sonata for Flute and Harp by the Russian Adrian Shaposhnikov (1888-1967), composed in 1925 and revised in 1962. This was as grave and courtly as you might expect—a nostalgic and ghostly echo, perhaps, in the post-revolutionary ‘20s, of the days of Imperial Russia— with a yet more wistful and somewhat Ravelian tinge to its brief central section, introduced by a few measures for the harp alone. It would be a distinct pleasure to hear the whole sonata from these performers.

Then it was a long jump to Argentina for a relatively familiar piece by the only really well-known composer on the travelers’ roster, Astor Piazzolla and his 1986 Histoire du Tango, from which Ms. Greenberg and Señora Mateo played the third movement, Night Club, 1960. This weaves with particular effectiveness an openly melancholic strain between the recurrences of the tango rhythm, though in it I did feel that the harp, more sonorous than the originally accompanying guitar, tended to mask the quite low-lying flute line; perhaps it was an acoustic vagary of the location where I was sitting.

Joseph Lauber
Back across the Atlantic to Switzerland, where there was a strong hint of cowbells in the harp part, and mountain vistas evoked by the soaring flute line, in the introduction to the fourth movement Gaillarde from the Quatre danses médiévales Op. 45 by Joseph Lauber (1864-1952), composed in 1928. Indeed, this waywardly atmospheric and quite extensive opening section was rather more interesting than the relatively brief and high-stepping dance section to which it led. Again, it would be good to hear the entire four-movement composition played by these performers.

Gerardo Gombau.
The first work on the program that was not an excerpt was Apunte Betico, for solo harp, written in 1951 by the Spaniard Gerardo Gombau (1906-1971). In this brief depiction of a southern Spanish landscape, it was easy to hear in Señora Mateo’s skillful playing echoes of guitar timbres, plaintively evoking the soul of Spain. After this, I did feel my native country’s credentials to be a little under-represented by the chirpy strains of Frank Brockett’s The Mocking Bird, for piccolo with (presumably) piano accompaniment transferred to the harp.

Little now seems discoverable about Brockett, who was apparently a then well-known piccolo virtuoso in early 20th-century London. Even his dates given in one source—1898-1977—are called into question by some publications of his pieces: The Mocking Bird itself is quoted in two places as having appeared in both 1919 and 1890! However, it gave Ms. Greenberg the chance to demonstrate both the piercing purity and nimbleness of the instrument she had owned and treasured for longer than she cared to recall.

Finally to France for the last and by some margin most substantial piece on the program, Narthex for Flute and Harp by Bernard Andrès. Now 79, M. Andrès has pursued a dual career both as harp virtuoso and composer, writing many works not only for the harp but also for choir, orchestra and various chamber ensembles. Narthex, composed in 1971, was inspired by his visits to Romanesque churches in Brittany, in some porches (i.e. narthexes) of which can be found representations of biblical scenes.

Bernard Andrès.
Its nine-minute single movement opens with a plaintive flute melody against a simple harp ostinato, that abruptly gives way to progressively more active, and indeed disturbed music, ranging through some of those scenes with a wealth of illustrative instrumental effects, including both rattling with a tuning-fork and tapping with fingers on the harp frame, and eerie glissandi made by inserting a finger into the flute's detached mouthpiece. What, one wonders, are M. Andrès’ other works like?

After enthusiastic applause for this highly imaginative piece, the performers stayed in France for their encore—and back to the taster pack for the tricky Danse à onze temps (Dance in 11 time), the last of the four movements of Suite en duo for flute (or violin) and harp (or piano) by Jean Cras (1879-1932). Once more—more please!


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, February, 2020.
Images: The artists: Classical Crossroads; Shaposhnikov: Classical Music Online; Lauber: HeBu Musikverlag; Gombau: Discogs; Brockett: From Photographs of Well Known Flute Players, Rudall Carte & Co., London, 1926 and 1938 (courtesy of Stuart Scott); Andrès: Discogs.

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