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Laurel Zucker – Virtuoso Flautist
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonata in D major for flute and piano, Op.94 [25:42]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sonata for flute and piano [13:05]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Syrinx for solo flute [3:15]
Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1918)
Concertino for flute and piano, Op. 107
Laurel Zucker (flute)
Robin Sutherland (piano)
No recording date or location given
CANTELENA RECORDS 660012 [50:08]


While I might deliver some scathing remarks about this CD, readers should know that I have been a flautist myself ever since giving up the recorder at the age of nine. I like to think I can be objective, but, like the crusading ‘smoker who has given up smoking’ I realise it is difficult to be just that about performances of pieces one has had under one’s skin for donkeys years. I promise not to spit the pips out of too many sour grapes.

Laurel Zucker is a superb flautist. I was a little dubious about the hype, but her reputation is well established and deserved, and both students and casual listeners will find much to learn from and enjoy in her technique and musicianship. I appreciate her usually tasteful vibrato, find little to fault with her phrasing, and am impressed by her dynamic range and articulation, although not every run is as cleanly negotiated as one might expect. This is very much an album of core repertoire, and while I’m not disputing Zucker’s virtuosity, I would love to hear her try - for instance - Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy for solo flute.

The Prokofiev is far and away the most demanding piece here, and she and her able accompanist perform with more élan than - for example - Jiri Valek and Josef Hala (Supraphon). The balance is the biggest problem for me here. Almost a stereotype of what we might expect from an American flautist recorded in the early 1990s, Zucker has the microphone fairly close to her nose by the sound of it, and her brilliant sound can be close to painful in the high registers, even at low volume. This is ‘power flute’ combined with microphone settings which have taken no account of the flute’s third octave forward acoustic peak, so I don’t recommend headphone listening. At times it sounds like a VERY BIG flute on top of a piano which is halfway down the orchestra pit. In the second movement the piano gets a bit of a boost. The engineer seems to have had the chance to get some coffee and twiddle a few knobs by then - or they managed to fix the stage lift - but unfortunately some of the low staccato detail in the flute occasionally becomes lost as a result. Painful highs remain – rearing an ugly head at regular intervals.

I shouldn’t be too unfair about the recording. Both instruments are placed in a nice resonant acoustic – not overly swimmy, but complimentary to both the players and the repertoire. I note that Zucker plays a Powell instrument in this recording, but has gone over to a Muramatsu in some later albums. I don’t play what my old teacher Gareth Morris calls the flute ‘game’ – switching head-joints and instruments in a never-ending search for a perfection which ultimately comes from oneself, not ones tools – but listening to this I can appreciate why Ms Zucker changed. There is a great deal of brilliance here, but less depth than I would want for myself.

My one big criticism of this CD may or may not stem from this. What I miss is a narrative quality. For me, these pieces always tell a story. It will be a slightly different story each time, depending on how one feels, the weather, the hall, the audience; but each time the imagination will be taken on some kind of journey. The Poulenc is a case in point. Poulenc’s Sonata is almost like a song cycle for the flute. One can imagine all kinds of associations at every point in the piece – little fragments of language, the conversation between piano and flute, the eloquent pleading and the strident protest – they’re all there, and this is where a player like Rampal wins over Zucker. With this recording I get lots of flute - sometimes too much - with just enough piano, but while I’m engaged by the playing, I’m not really involved with the music.

Debussy’s Syrinx, a piece which everyone knows how to play better than anyone else, is less disadvantaged in this regard. Laurel Zucker proves herself capable of a great deal of colour and variety in this work. She only spoils it slightly by sagging a little at the ends of some long notes, and making a meal of the last five-note descending motive – a moment for emptiness and despair rather than ‘le joli son’ if ever there was one.

Both players get stuck into the Chaminade Concertino with gusto, and given its origins as an exam piece for the Paris Conservatoire this suits the aims and title of this album down to the ground. I am used to more notes in the accompaniment here and there, but then, my mate Johan the piano (as opposed to Johan the accordion - I also have a daughter called Darcie whose best friend is another girl called Darcy – welcome to my world of confusion) has a tendency to ‘orchestrate’ à la Horowitz - or possibly even Stokowski - at the piano, so I can’t really accuse Robin Sutherland of ‘wimping out.’

At fifty minutes we might have expected one or two more choice nuggets from the flute repertoire here, but I suppose I shouldn’t grumble. It’s the best demo disc I’ve heard for  long time.

Dominy Clements



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