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Poulenc (1899-1963)/Berkeley(1903- 1989) - Flute Concerto

The key to transforming a promising talent into a well-rounded composer is, surely, a comprehensive musical education. Yet, assiduous application of this precept would make the world a poorer place! Why? Because then there would never be any composers like Francis Poulenc, whose unique qualities are the product of a scant, lop-sided education: piano lessons from Maman, some study with Ricardo Vines, a “Year in Industry” under the street-wise and possibly dubious influence of Les Nouveux Jeunes, and some belated study of harmony under Koechlin. With scarcely an inkling of matters formal, he pretty well invented his own. His innate lyrical facility led him up a similar path to the Strauss Family, creating larger structures by dovetailing smaller ones. The first movement of the Piano Concerto, for example, is string of independent episodes, while the Gloria uses alternation and repetition of its “tiles” to make a mesmerising “mosaic”. 

He delighted in the distinctive colours of woodwind, judging by the delicious way he contrasted and combined them in his chamber and orchestral works, so it seems strange that he never wrote any woodwind concertos. Doubly strange, then, that late in life Poulenc produced three sonatas for woodwind with piano - Flute (1957), Clarinet, and Bassoon (1962) - which clearly denied him the aforementioned delight. So, could these have been “sketches” for concertos which, through his self-confessed “laziness” he simply never got round to orchestrating? 

Possibly this was in the back of James Galway's mind when, years later, he suggested that the Flute Sonata would be an ideal candidate for arrangement into a concerto. The job fell to Sir Lennox Berkeley, whose credentials were impressive. A contemporary of Poulenc and himself partly of French descent, Berkeley had a strong sympathy for the French style (something often apparent in his own compositions). Moreover, he had studied in France (under Nadia Boulanger), and to clinch the deal he had also been a close friend of Poulenc's. The result is as charming and delightful a Flute Concerto as you could wish. The modest scoring, significantly, includes double woodwind save for one flute, suggesting that Berkeley intended the first flute to enter the limelight. That it is also thoroughly idiomatic is merely the icing on the cake. 

It is not at all profound music, nor is it meant to be - but for elegance, wit and charm there can be few more engaging ways to while away a quarter of an hour of leisure. 

1. Allegro malincolio is cast in an ideal form for Poulenc, an ABACADA rondo, [A] being that famous flute tune. The sparkling, distinctly un-malincolio [B] is very brief, even by Poulenc's standards, and the final appearance of [A] a foreshortened coda. 

2. Cantilena is a kind of “Variations de Chanson”, a string of sunny variations on a silken theme. While a slightly frisky variation may stir the lazy imagination, the fleeting moment of sheer petulance near the end sounds uncommonly like the swatting of a summer midge! 

3. Presto Giocoso is a  pot-pourri recalling the irrepressible vivacity of Les Biches. Only the first of its parade of ideas makes a full return, right at the end, although fleeting references to other themes (including that one!) skim by on the wing. At one point, it seems that a cadenza begins, but it soon transpires that there is to be none of that sort of nonsense!

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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