Nicolas BACRI (b. 1961) Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (1999) [15:53]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990) Halil (1981) [14:39]
Brett DEAN (b. 1961) The Siduri Dances (2007) [12:10]
Christopher ROUSE (b. 1949) Flute Concerto (1993) [27:56]
Sharon Bezaly (flute)
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Jean-Jacques Kantorow (Bacri); São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/John Neschling (Bernstein); Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Brett Dean (Dean); Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Alan Gilbert
rec. Tapiola Hall, Espoo, Finland, May 2006 (Bacri); Sala São Paulo, Brazil, August 2007 (Bernstein); Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden, May 2007 (Dean); Concert Hall, Stockholm, Sweden, March 2006 (Rouse)
BIS BIS-CD-1799 [71:54]

This superb disc is a compilation of works from four earlier Bis releases. Apart from the Bernstein, they were all single-composer discs, and it would be a pity if duplication of repertoire discouraged flute enthusiasts from investigating the other works.

The concerto by Nicolas Bacri is in three short movements, each one packed with incident. The booklet note by Martin Anderson sets these out in detail, but some are very fleeting and can easily be missed on a first or second hearing. A cadenza in the first movement is marked Sognando (dreaming) and though the middle movement is marked Estatico, this is, according to Anderson, the stuff of dreams rather than “fleshly delight”. There is certainly a nocturnal feeling to much of the music, even in rapid passages, but the sleep evoked in the slow movement, if such it be, seems rather troubled to me. The sound of the flute, celesta and side-drum in the closing seconds of the piece might put the listener in mind of Shostakovich, but that would be misleading. I don’t hear Nielsen in there either, in spite of Anderson’s note. In truth, this music is very individual: there is nothing to shock, but it is quite strange, a little disquieting, beguiling whilst at the same time, at least in this piece, rather short on human warmth and emotion. It is a powerful piece which packs a lot into its short time-span. I found it rather unimpressive at first, but its beauty and strength come out with each subsequent hearing.

Bernstein’s Halil is a most satisfying piece. Dedicated to the memory of an Israeli flute player and soldier “and to his Fallen Brothers”, the piece is by turns elegiac and violent. Bernstein flirts with twelve-tone technique in the work, and there are passages in dance rhythm which sound much more like Latin American music than anything Israeli. As one might expect from this composer, the work is beautifully scored, and Bernstein makes fleeting but touching use of a piccolo and an alto flute in the orchestra. The first performance was given by Jean-Pierre Rampal, and he recorded the work with the composer for DG.

The Australian composer Brett Dean’s piece is a reworking for flute and strings of an earlier piece, Demons, for flute solo, composed for Sharon Bezaly in 2004. “Siduri”, the composer writes, “is a wise female divinity from the Epic of Gilgamesh” and the new piece has come about by “broadening the scope of both the title and the [original] piece…with the solo flute very much in the role of the protagonist-traveller-spiritual companion.” There are a few short calm passages, but in general the music is constantly on the go. Scraps of melody feature in both the solo and the ensemble parts, with lots of scurrying strings and flute figuration. The tranquil passages contain some more extended melodic writing for the flute, and this has a wandering, improvisatory quality to it, with wide leaps. There are a few special effects in the solo part, unusual in this collection. The work ends abruptly, apparently without any preparation or forewarning. I have worked hard with this piece but for the moment have to report that it hasn’t really “spoken” to me yet.

In February 1993, in one of the most shocking events in British criminal history, two year-old James Bulger was tortured and murdered by two ten year-old boys. Writing about his Flute Concerto of 1993, American composer Christopher Rouse tells us that the long, central slow movement is a “reaction to the Bulger murder that I felt impelled to express.” The movement is certainly a powerful emotional outpouring, featuring in particular two long, intense passages, the second of which culminates in unexpected harsh dissonances. I find it a pity that, by their very nature, these passages exclude the solo instrument. The form of the concerto is an arch, the first and last, and second and fourth, movements sharing mood and material. The composer writes that the slow movement “is meant in some way to alter our perception and understanding of the music that follows it, even though that music is essentially the same as the music preceding it.” The work is a very powerful one, the outer movements successfully evoking the musical heritage of the composer’s British ancestry. Most of the work is essentially tonal, and among the features that strike the listener on a first hearing are the quite brilliantly effective writing for the soloist and – I imagine – the orchestral flutes in the fourth movement, and the touching way in which the concerto ends with the same, Gaelic-sounding, chord from the harp as that which began it. I am less certain about the overall form, as I also am about its emotional focus, finding difficult the link between the outer movements and the long threnody of the slow movement in a work which is, after all, dedicated to the memory of the murdered child.

Sharon Bezaly is quite spectacularly brilliant in all of these works. She demonstrates total command over the notes, and produces a remarkable range of tone colour. Her mastery of circular breathing – taking in air through the nose whilst simultaneously blowing from the mouth – is much in evidence and produces some startling effects. It takes a bit of getting used to though, as the playing is audibly punctuated by sniffs. Call me old-fashioned, but I think flute music should be conceived in phrases that allow the player to breathe. It’s a stunning display overall, and she deserves our thanks for her commitment to contemporary music. The four orchestras and their respective conductors give her outstanding support and the recordings are all well up to the very high standards of the house. Admirers of Sharon Bezaly, of the flute or – with the caveat mentioned in the first paragraph – of contemporary music, can acquire this disc without hesitation.

William Hedley