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A Glass of Wine with the Flautist Rachel Smith

 

It is not often that a reviewer has the opportunity of meeting the performer of one of the CDs that they have reviewed. So it was a great pleasure to be able to catch up with the flautist Rachel Smith at Victoria Station.

We met between ‘Accessorize’ and the Bureau de Change, close by the welcoming entrance to the Station Hotel. A few moments later we were ensconced in the comfortable hotel lounge with two well deserved glasses of dry white wine. Unfortunately we did not have much time. Rachel had been performing in the City and was en-route to the Albert Hall to play flute in a performance of Francesca Zambello’s stunning presentation of Puccini’s La Boheme. In-between these two appointments she had to pick up a stack of her latest CDs, Summer was in August from an address in South London and of course meet me!

It wasn’t so much an interview, as an exchange of views and an opportunity to find out what makes her tick. I had already read her exceptionally impressive CV and mini biography: I had listened again to her latest CD. I could have chosen to concentrate on many aspects of her life and career – but it was her relationship with British music that interested me most. So, with limited time we got down to business.

Rachel Smith is an enthusiast of the music of Malcolm Arnold. Apparently Paul Lewis, the composer, gave her a copy of the score of Arnold’s Flute Sonatina for a birthday present. She told me that although she had known of the works existence she had not heard or played it until then. She agreed with me that this is impressive work that verges on being a ‘Sonata.’ The depth of the works and the anguished middle movement make this a major contribution to the genre. We both agreed that the last movement was a little gem – Rachel was able to sing a few bars and I told her of a friend who once said ‘you could lick the ice-cream off this movement."

Malcolm Arnold has written a number of works for Flute – including two concertos, and a Sonata. However I was surprised to hear from Rachel that the solo Fantasy is exceptionally difficult. A few years ago (1997) James Galway released a fine CD on the RCS Victor Red Seal label (09026 68860-2) This contained all the extant Arnold works for flute – including the Three Shanties for Wind Quintet Op.4 and the Divertimento for Flute, Oboe and Clarinet although curiously he did omit the Duo for Flute & Viola Op.10. However this recording is no longer in the catalogue. Alexa Still, the American flautist has recorded both Concerti and Hyperion still has a number of the chamber works in their catalogue. So Rachel has it at the back of her mind to perform and perhaps record these works again. I agreed with her that they are too important to be unavailable.

We then had an interesting discussion about Television. Do not get me wrong - we were not updating on the changes and chances of ‘Eastenders’ or ‘Coronation Street:’ what we were debating was music written for television.

In my review of ‘Summer Was In August’ I made a few comments about the music of Paul Lewis and Paul Carr sounding a little bit like ‘television’ music. Perhaps I had been a little disingenuous. I had just finished reading J.L Carr’s wonderful novelette ‘A Month in the Country’ and felt that some of these tunes would have provided a fine sound track for a TV production of this book. For the record the original score to the movie version of this novel was composed by Howard Blake.

Now unbeknown to me Rachel had let Paul Lewis, a name that features often in her conversation, see my comments and I think that perhaps he felt I had been a little harsh. Rachel pointed out to me that Lewis likes to balance his creativity between the ‘box’ and concert works. What the concert works allow him is the freedom from strict timings and contrived emotions so necessary to that particular genre. For example few TV productions consist of entirely ‘happy scenes.’ The mood of the music is often dependent on the characters and not with the composer’s personal fancies. Now this seems obvious – but I suppose I never really considered it. Much of Lewis’ output for the concert hall could be characterised as ‘happy romantic’ music; the titles of his works tend to emphasise this emotion – Devonshire Dances; Concerto Burlsesco, Saturday Night Jazz Suite and Three Snippets for Four Saxes – to cite but four. Much of his recorded music appears on what would be regarded as ‘light music’ compilations. Paul Lewis had explained to Rachel that he felt his TV work was actually no less important than his concert pieces. In fact she reminded me that Malcolm Arnold himself had written extensively for film!

The point was taken.

Interestingly enough Rachel had a few of Paul Lewis’ scores in her shoulder bag. Mr Lewis still uses pen and ink on manuscript paper and produces a neat and attractive score. In particular it was most rewarding to be able to have a quick read through of Elemental Spirits. The trademark sound of this work seems to be flutter-tonguing and major and minor seconds. Lewis has also written a piece called Russian Scenes for alto flute. I knew that Rachel had played the alto flute in the second movement of her recording of Lewis Three Diversions for Solo Flute. She pointed out to me that Holst used this instrument in the Planets, Ravel in Daphnis and Stravinsky in The Firebird. Actually it is an attractive sound that perhaps deserves more music to be especially composed for it than seems to have been the case.

 

She has a number of plans for future recordings. Lewis has composed a number of works for her. Hopefully the romantic sounding Norfolk Concerto will be released soon along with Elemental Spirits– a work for two flutes. I asked Rachel if she would be performing both parts – double tracking I believe it is called – but, no it will be done with two flutes and two performers.

A desideratum would of course be the two concerti written for flute by Gordon Jacob. Having recently heard her play the Jacob’s two miniatures ‘On a Summer Evening’ and the Pied Piper, it is certainly a release to look forward to- although once again Alexa Still has recorded the first of the pair.

It is always great to hear that a composer has been asked to produce a piece of music for a performer. And Rachel Smith has been the root cause and inspiration for quite a few works. Paul Carr, who was well represented on the ‘Summer was in August’ CD has written her a 2nd Sonatina which was inspired by Malcolm Arnold’s. Paul Lewis has composed a piece called La fille aux cheveux dorés for flute and piano. Rachel tells me that this has the most gorgeous and romantic tune imaginable. Kit Turnbull is delivering a new work for flute soloist and concert band which will be quite a treat. Already Martin Ellerby has written an absolutely gorgeous work for flute and the Regimental Band of the Coldstream Guards called ‘Neapolitan Serenade.’ (available on Polyphonic Reproductions QPRM 149D)

In 2002 Rachel performed Paul Carr’s Flute Concerto No.2 at the Brighton Festival which was well received by critics and audience alike. There is an exciting rumour that Richard Stoker may be writing her a work for solo flute.

Rachel Smith provides valuable help to Lewis and Carr when it comes to preparing the score. She assists with proof reading and of course her advice is invaluable when it comes to breathing marks and a general understanding of what is possible and perhaps impossible for the instrument. However she tells me that she has no plans to produce editions from the original manuscripts of lost works!

Rachel does not ignore music from other countries and eras: although she loves Baroque music she avoids playing it on ‘early’ instruments.

She has a number of the great French works in her repertoire including those by Pierne and Poulenc. American music is represented by Howard Hanson’s Serenade for Flute Harp & Strings and Samuel Barber’s delightful Canzone. All this is in addition to the standard repertoire of chamber and orchestral works.

We talked briefly about other English music that has been written for flute. Of course there is the Summer and Winter Music by Richard Rodney Bennett. Cecilia McDowall has composed a number of interesting works for the instrument. And a brief look through the pages of Groves reveals many hidden and not so hidden gems.

But perhaps it is the depths of the second hand music shops that a number of treasures are to be found. I understand that Rachel spends time rooting around in dusty basements of these latter-day Aladdin’s caves. And I can empathise: I myself often wonder how much energy I have put into exploring piles of Edwardian and Victorian piano music in the hope of comings a across a great prize. And the good news is that I quite often do. In my case it is piano music that exercises me but I will now be keeping an eye open for Rachel’s instrument too.

We finished off our wine – the clock was against us. Soon it was time for Rachel to be on her way to the Albert Hall by way of the District Line.

 

John France 21st March 2006

 

 



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