Friday 21 December 2012

CD Review - A Flute Affair

When I lived in Scotland, some 30 years ago or more, I played the viola in a light orchestra and a couple of the older guys in it had actually had careers in light music before the war. A period when small ensembles, Palm Court trios, would play lighter classical pieces and pot-pourris of popular melodies, all arranged for the available forces. It is a style of playing which, if well done, can be full of charm.

This new disc from flautist Marlene Verwey reminds me of that era, in all the best ways. Verwey is joined by an instrumental group, Anne Marshal (piano), Evert van Niekerk (violin), Theuns Pienaar (violin), Ken Craig (viola), Carel Henn (cello) and Armandt Marais (double bass), and they play a selection of arrangements of popular classics and pot-pourris. Verwey is from North West South Africa and trained at the the Royal College of Music. This new CD has been produced on the South African record label, Salon Music.

The disc opens with Karoonag, by the South African performer, pianist and jazz musician Charl du Plessis who is the pianist on this track. The music is rather folk-influenced and shows off Verwey's sweet toned flute playing. They follow this with an arrangement of the Laudate Dominum from Mozart's Vesperae Sollenelle. The presence of a piano in the mix gives this version a distinctly salon-ish feel, but the solo soprano creates a lovely solo line for the flute.

The feeling of the salon or the palm-court continues with Valse Bluette by Riccardo Drigo, Director of Music at the Imperial Russian Theatres. The piece started life as a pas de deux for a 1903 ballet, La tulipe de Haarlem and was arranged by the violinist Leopold Auer. Verwey's version is based on Fritz Kreisler's arrangement, and charming it is too. The piece is rather fun, and certainly tricky, but Verwey throws off the difficulties with ease

If the serenade from Sigmund Romberg's The Student Prince doesn't make you smile, then nothing will. Both Verwey and the other musicians are a delight here, playing music straight with no feeling of ironic distance.

Francois Borne's Carmen Fantasy for Flute is the sort of pot-pourri that gets rarely performed nowadays. It introduces many of the main themes from the opera, but frankly the flute is an instrument which cannot quite get down and dirty enough to do them justice. Frankly, the arrangement is a little too twirly and flirty, but it is a real tour-de-force for the flute player, and Verwey plays brilliantly.

Ach so fromm from Flotow's Martha and Si mes vers avaiet des ailes by Reynaldo Hahn are presented in relatively straight-forward transcriptions of the pieces with the flute taking the melody line. Both are a delight, with Verwey's playing in the Flotow really making me smile. The perky arrangement of Handel's Arrival of the Queen of Sheba gives the flute some very effective moments, nicely played by Verwey, but the presence of a piano in the orchestra makes the accompaniment chug somewhat.

Melodie de Gluck by the Italian composer Giovanni Sgambati is basically an arrangement of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orfeo ed Euridice, originally written for solo piano. Here Verwey captures the limpidness of Gluck's tunes, and is sympathetically accompanied by the instrumental ensemble.

Charl du Plessis re-joins the group for his arrangement of Piazolla's Tango - Adios nonino. This is rather effective, though I do rather miss the sound of the bandoneon or accordion which is a key element in much of Piazolla's music.

Paganini's charmingly pleasant Cantabile is one of those warhorses which crop up particularly on older recordings, it seems to be based on a piece for violin and guitar.  The group follow this with another substantial pot-pourri, Taffanel's Grand Fantasie (Mignon) based on themes from Ambroise Thomas' Mignon. Taffanel was a French composer and flautist who is regarded as a founder of the French flute school. Flute players, and lovers of the flute repertoire, are probably familiar with his name, though it was new to me. His Grand Fantasie is a charming delight.

Charl du Plessis's Kinders van die wind is an attractive light piece which fits into this salon to perfection. The arrangement of Handel's Lascia chio pianga from Rinaldo is pretty straight and the result, though inauthentic in one way, makes for a fine solo number for the flute. The Variations on a theme from Rossini's La Cenerentola are attributed to Chopin, though this is not documented. Whoever they are by they make a bravura showpiece for Verwey's technique and a fine finale to the disc.

This is a lovely, well put-together disc which showpieces both Verwey's technique and her sweet toned flute playing, but in a way that is charming and very enjoyable. The programme has a strong whiff of the salon, but the performers are not looking down on the repertoire. Instead they give us elegantly played music, which hides their admirable technical skill. The Palm Court style of much of the music on the disc is tricky, it is all to easy to over do things. The performers here play everything with an commendably light hand. This is the sort of disc you might decide to buy for a music loving Aunt; but one listen to it and you'll not want to give it away.

Further on the CD information from the dedicated website.

A Flute Affair
Charl du Plessis - Karoonag
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) - Laudate Dominum (Vesperae Sollennes)
Riccardo Drigo (1846 - 1930), arr. Fritz Kreisler - Valse Bluette
Sigmund Romberg (1887 - 1951) - Serenade (The Student Prince)
Francois Borne (1862 - 1929) - Carmen fantasy for flute
Friedrich von Flotow (1812 - 1883) - Ach so fromm (Martha)
Reynaldo Hahn (1874 - 1947) - Si me vers avaient des ailes
Giovanni Sgambati (1841 - 1914) - Melodie de Gluck
Astor Piazzolla (1921 - 1992), arr. Charl du Plessis - Tango - Adios Nonino
Niccolo Paganini (1782 - 1840) - Cantabile
Claude-Paul Taffanel (1844 - 1908) - Grande Fantasie (Mignon)
Charl du Plessis - Kinders van die wind
Frederick Chopin (1810 - 1849), attributed - Variations on Non piu mesta (La Cenerentola)
Marlene Verwey (flute)
Charl du Plessis (piano)
Anne Marshall (piano)
Evert van Niekerk (violin)
Theuns Pienaar (violin)
Ken Craig (viola)
Carel Henn (cello)
Armandt Marais (double bass)
Concept, musical arrangements and direction - Willem Vogel
Recorded March 2012

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