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Sonata for flute choir,
Op 58
Fantasia for alto flute and bass flute and flute choir
Song of the Eagle

The James Madison University Flute Club/Carol Kniebusch Noe, director.
rec. James Madison University
ClassicPrint CPVP013CD
Available from Lynwood Music, 2 Church Street. West Hagley, West Midlands, DY9 ONA.


Andrew Downes' Sonata for flute choir, Op 58, dates from 1995 and was composed to honour the flute-maker, Albert Cooper. It was premiered in New York in August 1996. It is in five movements and is an eclectic work showing many influences but none the worse for that. The sumptuous opening Andante misterioso, which begins with the bass flute, reminds me of the reverential dignity of Parsifal and is quite moving and very beautiful. It has been said that the flute is the nearest instrument to both the voice and the human spirit. I adore the more agitated middle section which has a gorgeous scherzando feel about it and it is very well played.

Don't be put off by the unusual forces used. This is not cranky music or to be merely relegated as educational music. It is far too good for that!

The second movement is an allegro vivace with melodic lines and collages of controlled vitality. The melody shows some African influence and the movement ends in a primitive confusion and disarray. Note how Downes captures the heat of Africa. This is clever, evocative and life-like music of the highest order.

Mystery returns in the third movement, Adagio misterioso, and is, according to the composer, the heart of the piece. Here again the composer wears his heart on his sleeve and the emotional content is evident. It is very profound and may take a lot of listening to in order to appreciate its depths. The fourth movement is typical of Downes. He has the courage to say what he wants to say and marks this movement Allegro with bounce and energy. That description will not please musical purists but it tells us exactly what the composer wants. It dries the tears of the previous movement with a radiant happiness. See if you can detect any elements of jazz.

The finale is marked Adagio with solemnity. I wonder whether slow finales are always a good idea. It is clearly funereal in style which concept one does not always associate with the flute. But why not? If it is the wind instrument nearest to the human voice and spirit, and it is, why not?

Downes believes that the third movement is the heart of the piece. I found it captivating. Not a single superfluous note. I could follow with ease the musical logic and, with apologies to Andrew, I think that this music is the best of what is a very satisfying work and a large and important work as well.

The recorded sound, while good, could have been better but that is a minor point

The Fantasia for alto and bass flutes and flute choir dates from 1999. The recording uses four bass flutes and five alto flutes for the solo parts which puzzles me. The flute choir is in five parts. I suppose it is a sort of concerto grosso. It is another eclectic work with influences from renaissance music and the cultures of Africa and North America. It does not sound too difficult to play but a good sense of rhythm is required. Its stillness may becomes a little wearisome for listeners. It is perhaps a little too introspective but there are some choice moments on the way

Song of the Eagle was commissioned by Carol Kniebusch Noe, the director of this group and, as the title suggests, is a paean to freedom and to the wide open spaces of the North American continent vastly to be preferred to the awful cities with their towering skyscrapers, relentless traffic and nervous lifestyle complete with serious pollution problems. How well the flute depicts purity and cleanliness. Here the virtuosic abilities of the flute choir are put to test and they appear to succeed.

An occasional disc maybe, but welcome all the same. It is very interesting and, at times, very very rewarding indeed.

David Wright.

See my biographical article on Andrew Downes on this website.

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