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Cantilena

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major, K.313 (1778) [26:10]
Flute Quartet in C major K.285b (1778) [15:37]
Flute Concerto in D major, K.314 (1777? arr.1778) [21:14]
Laurel Zucker (flute)
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (members)/Zeev Dorman
rec. Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel-Aviv (Concertos), Academy of Arts and Letters (Quartet). Recording sessions not dated. Disc © 1995
CANTILENA RECORDS 66010-2 [63:01]

Mozart famously disliked the flute. Writing to his father in 1778 at the time he had been commissioned to compose some flute concertos and quartets by the wealthy Dutch amateur flautist De Jean, he complained that he was ‘quite powerless’ to compose for an instrument that he disliked. Flautists of the time were of course performing on quite different instruments to the ones we are accustomed to hearing now. The Baroque ‘traverso’ had been souped up a little with a wobbly variety of extra keys in order to allow more harmonic flexibility, but it was to be a good 50 years or so before Theobald Boehm came up with his new mechanism, the one on which all modern instruments are now based. Mozart himself played both the well established violin and the well-tempered piano. The primitive nature of the flute - a relatively soft sounding wooden tube held together with leather and string and which was hard enough to play in tune by serious professionals, let alone wealthy amateurs - would have been quite a restriction on his expressive palette. After composing the G major concerto he ran out of creative steam, and the D major concerto is ‘merely’ an arrangement of an oboe concerto in C (K.271k).

Enough of the history. These performances are of course unashamedly modern, with Laurel Zucker playing on a brilliant sounding Powell flute. The flute and orchestra are well enough balanced in a nice, not too resonant acoustic, giving the performances a pleasant, almost chamber-music quality. There is of course a certain amount of competition on this terrain, but I’m glad to say that Zucker is more listenable than Galway, and cheaper than Pahud on EMI (but only just).

Many performers will agree that Mozart is one of the most difficult composers to play perfectly. The demands of re-creating a version of perfection in a sound world which is of itself a form of perfection are those which can be the greatest test of a player. Ask the soloist after a live performance of a Mozart concerto if he or she was completely happy with every aspect of his or her performance, and you will almost always elicit a wry grimace, a brief shake of the head, and a short press statement: ‘well, that cadence after the recap could have been more together ...’ or some such caveat. Sensitive musicians will grow to respect Mozart as one of their biggest challenges, and will of course have dutifully read their Quantz, Rousseau or Sulzer on performance practice of the time.

Zucker seems to have her own ideas on this kind of thing, and will no doubt be able to defend them, though the fundamental disagreements with the orchestra would tend to make this something of a struggle. Taking the first movement of K.313, the orchestral exposition has the orchestra taking a lively, bouncy, well-articulated view of the opening theme, with the two eighth notes in the second bar well separated. Zucker’s entry is completely different, with the quarter notes of her first bar and the following eighths nicely legato, spreading the rhythm like peanut butter. In Mozart, the first note of the bar, or that on the stronger beat, generally receives the most emphasis. Take the 7th bar after the flute entry in this movement – only two notes, G to C, in which the C would most certainly be the ‘weaker’. Zucker sings it out with joyous abandon, and the correctly phrased orchestral answer sounds a little sheepish by comparison. It may be a matter of taste, and I know Zucker makes no claim to make this a ‘period’ performance, but if she were a student I’d be asking her ‘why?’ In the second movement there is that charming little upward turn at the end of the first phrase, which the orchestra (to my mind) correctly plays with a slight diminuendo and a slight shortening of the last note each time it returns. Zucker plants the last note on us firmly, giving it its full eighth-note value, making the phrase rather four-square and losing the character of that little motief. I don’t want to bore on about this, but it’s one of the things which has turned me off most frequently about this recording.

Zucker has written her own, commendable cadenzas for the concertos, and her technique is of course above reproach. Her intonation in the concertos is often into the upper half of the note – a typical symptom of projecting over an orchestra which is more noticeable when there are half a dozen microphones making such projection less necessary. This slight problem is less noticeable (if not entirely absent) in the quartet, which is nicely balanced and performed with well judged tempi, and in which Laurel Zucker’s phrasing is entirely more consistent with the other players than in the concertos.

This production lacks a little in sonic gloss and refinement, and has enough rough moments to prevent me making an unreserved recommendation (the flat oboe entry at 6:05 in the first movement of K.314 – ouch!), but as ever the uncritical listener who can find this at budget price somewhere will find little about which to complain.

Dominy Clements

 

 



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