Too Much Tchaikovsky

More Flutes

A few weeks ago we stuck one toe in the deep waters of music for transverse flute, an instrument played by lots of Western musicians. The website flutemonkey.com lists 50 great flutists, although (ahem) not the person highlighted in our previous column. (Flute politics? More likely just anglophone chauvinism). I like that flutemonkey’s list includes both Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull fame and Johann Joachim Quantz (1697–1773), whose guide to flute playing is a classic. Glad to see they’ve got Robert Dick in there too. Sad to see they ignored Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Today we bring you a toe-dip for two other great flute traditions, those of the recorder and the shakuhachi.

The recorder is a fipple flute, ubiquitous in school music programs and early-music ensembles. I myself learned to push air through a column in third grade thanks to something called a Flutophone. (This led to my joining the school band and majoring in clarinet for a while in college.) The cool thing about recorders is that they’re easy to play. You can concentrate on other things: learning how to count beats, read music, listen to those around you.

“Easy” has nothing to do with what the greatest recorder players have achieved, though. They toot rings around everyone else in spite of that. In TMT #13, you got a wee taste from Kathryn Montoya. It’s not hard to find more, but may I recommend an outlier’s choice? Try The Amorous Flute (Decca 440079), which features early-music pioneers David Munrow and Christopher Hogwood on recorders and keyboards respectively. (And here is a shout-out to ArkivMusic, who do so much to keep these old recordings available today.) Let’s hear “For the East India Nightingale” from Six Tunes for the Instruction of Singing-Birds (1717) as played on the flageolet by Mr. Munrow:

My 21st-century recorder heroine is Michala Petri, for the same reasons I champion Sharon Bezaly. She’s a phenomenal musician, but she’s also allied herself with excellent recording engineers. Her label (it’s hers, literally) brings out exceptionally produced music spanning a variety of genres. Much of it features Petri and/or guitarist/lutenist Lars Hannibal. You can hardly go wrong with any of their releases, many of which can be previewed on ClassicsOnlineHD.

I recommend Danish and Faroese Recorder Concertos (OUR 6220609), because of its unusual but welcoming repertoire. Like a number of modern soloists, Petri is enriching the repertoire for her instrument with an ongoing program of commissions. My favorites on this album are “Moonchild’s Dream” and Territorial Songs. You can sample both by clicking on the catalog number above. The color combinations these composers—Thomas Koppel and Sunleif Rasmussen—achieve with a modern orchestra and an ancient solo instrument need to be experienced at length.

Once you climb into the Wayback Machine, however, you’ll find the hottest spot for flutes and recorders was the Baroque era: good recordings of Vivaldi “flute” concertos, including the famous Tempesta di mare, RV 98, lie thick on the ground. Many experts now consider this concerto to have been intended for transverse flute, but that didn’t stop Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico from recording a smashing version of it over twenty years ago. It’s still my favorite. (Careful, don’t confuse this Tempesta with a couple of other, non-flute concertos bearing the same nickname.)

If you want to hear Petri herself go to town on Baroque materials, try her Virtuoso Baroque album (OUR  6220604). But be forewarned, it’s a grab-bag, with some transcriptions that don’t match the intensity and expressive range of the originals, e.g., Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill,” intended for virtuoso violinists.

So why not give Dialogue: East Meets West (OUR  6220600) a shot? It’s very High Concept: ten young composers, five Danish and five Chinese, were commissioned to write duos for Petri and Chen Yue, a master of two ancient Chinese flutes, the xiao and dizi. These are varied works performed with a sense of adventure that helps overcome the collection’s inherent limitations of timbre and texture. Here’s a bit of “Sparkling/Collision” by Li Rui, a young Chinese composer who works folk songs and other traditional melodic patterns into her music:

Fun! Best enjoyed in small doses, though.

Now that you’re launched on recorders, let’s do the shakuhachi. The most important wind instrument of Japan, its use dates back well over a thousand years. Central to any shakuhachi library should be Shakuhachi – The Japanese Flute (Nonesuch, various formats). Originally issued in 1977, it features the astonishing Kōhachiro Miyata in a handful of classics for the instrument, including “Tsuru no Sugomori,” (“Tenderness of Cranes”), which references the loving behavior of parent birds, and “Shika no Tōne” (“The Sound of Deer Calling to One Another”). Not all shakuhachi music draws upon nature for inspiration. Another prominent tradition stems from its use as an aid to meditation. Zen monks have been known to play the shakuhachi in a busy marketplace, covering their heads with a basket as they do so. Reflecting that heritage, Miyata begins his recital with the spare, slow prelude “Honshirabe.” Long tones, audible breathing, and flutter-tonguing also contribute to the other-worldly sound of the shakuhachi. We’ll sample “Tsuru no Sugomori”:

If you’d like to hear the shakuhachi in ensemble with some of its customary partners, try Ralph Samuelson’s The Universal Flute (Innova 942). This recent recording emphasizes newer compositions, including music by Americans Henry Cowell, Richard Teitelbaum, and Elizabeth Brown. But it also includes Teizo Matsumura’s landmark “Shikyoku Ichiban,” with lovely koto playing from Yoko Hiraoka:

Lots more out there. The Yamato Ensemble offers a 24-bit download of traditional repertoire, for example, and you may prefer that to Samuelson’s more eclectic approach. It’s attractive, peaceful music, well worth exploring.