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Timeless Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Bilitis [15:06] Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Sonata for Flute and Piano, H.306 [19:14] Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Ballade for flute and piano [7:19] Jim COYLE (b.1968) Paradise of Birds [21:33]
Bridget Bolliger (flute)
Andrew West (piano)
rec. 2017, Trackdown Recording Studio, Sydney, Australia AUSTRIAN GRAMOPHONE AG0013 [63:31]
This is an enticing programme featuring two core repertory works (Martinů and Martin), an exotic rarity (Debussy) and something completely new (Coyle). The Australian flute/piano partnership of Bridget Bolliger and Andrew West are also an enticing combination, although the recording’s tendency to keep the piano in the background upsets the balance of the partnership and, in the case of the Debussy, causes the flute to dominate in a rather irritatingly forceful manner. This would be a bigger problem were it not for the fine, rich and varied tone Bolliger produces from her instrument.
Looking first to the well-known works, Bolliger has both the impish qualities to dance nimbly over Martinů’s perkier passages and the expansiveness of breath to glide effortlessly over his broad melodic lines. Here, perhaps more than in any of the other works, West exerts a strong musical personality, guiding and supporting Bolliger as the music flits through the myriad ideas, and jerking it purposefully onwards from the occasional bouts of reverie and stuck-in-the-groove repetition which are such a feature of Martinů’s writing. The surging, insistently moving character of the Frank Martin is also superbly caught, although a little more weight from the piano would have given this piece, with its essential sense of narrative line, some stronger sense of groundedness.
Debussy’s Bilitis dates back to 1897 when he set three poems for voice and piano from a collection of 143 by Pierre Lou˙s. Three years later he composed his purely instrumental Chansons de Bilitis for two flutes, two harps and celesta intended to accompany the reading of 12 of the poems. That original score was lost, but in 1914 he re-wrote some of it as his six Epigraphes antiques for piano four hands. Lou˙s purported that these poems were a translation of erotic lesbian verses originally written by an ancient Greek courtesan by the name of Bilitis which he had found inscribed on a tomb wall in Cyprus; but that was a complete fiction. Lou˙s’ work, nevertheless, clearly resonated with Debussy, although it was the atmosphere of ancient Greece he liked in these poems rather than the texts which he thought were a little too explicit in their language. But it was not Debussy who prepared this version for flute and piano, but Karl Lenski, who in 1984 created this new work mostly from the music of the first five Epigraphes antiques. Subtlety and atmosphere are what Bilitis is all about, and Bolliger is particularly astute in creating that sense of antiquity peering through the mists of time in her evocative playing.
Although Australian composer Jim Coyle wrote his Paradise of Birds for Bridget Bolliger in 2017, musically it certainly does not seem incongruous set in this predominantly early-20th century programme. Like Bilitis these 12 musical portraits of birds looks back to antiquity, and to the voyages of the sixth century Irish saint, Brendan of Clonfert; often referred to as Brendan the Navigator. Brendan wrote of how on his travels to remote islands he encountered fabulous birds with miraculous properties. Coyle has chosen 12 avian species native to Australia and, in music which is far more subtle and nuanced than we might have expected given the subject-matter, depicts their character and song in music. He has framed them within a short Prelude and Postlude, and the whole makes a highly effective and charming work, which Bolliger and West clearly revel in. My personal favourite is the chattering “Rainbow Lorikeet”, but the “Emerald Dove” coos beautifully, with some superbly measured flutter-tonguing from the flute and gently placed chords from the piano. My only puzzle is how the graceful and poised music for the “Superb Fairy Wren” supports the comment in the booklet note that this bird is “sexually promiscuous”.