FringeReview UK 2019
Clare Beesley and Peter Churchill gave a Flute and Accordion Recital of Vivaldi, Fauré, Mozart, Godard and Bach.
‘Definition of perfect pitch: throwing an accordion in a skip without touching the sides.’ Thus Peter Churchill on his recently-championed instrument. Might not seem a promising start to a recital but of course it was an ice-breaker.
Flautist Clare Beesley and accordion player Peter Churchill formed Calliope, Goddess of Eloquence in 2017. Prior to that they’d been a flute and piano duo. They were looking for something exciting. They found it. The flute creamily trills over the top of a porcupine of sonorities. It’s exciting, heartwarming, rich and really really strange at times.
The repertoire is as yet mainstream, with one exception. But the effect was something other.
Straight off Vivaldi’s Concerto The Goldfinch – Il Gardellino – is one of his best-known – nicknames ramp up familiarity like a boost n a google search engine. But they’re often more colourful, programme-music-refracted, and attractive. Beesley nonchalantly takes the top off the nightingale whilst Churchill suggests a whole orchestral accompaniment. Its not a simple continuo, or bass line but suggestive of a nest of bristling instruments. But in the slow Cantabile – between the dotted rhythms of the goldfinch-pecked Allegros – the lyricism’s intense; the duetting sonorities are literally breathtaking.
Fauré’s Sicilienne is from his Pelléas et Mélisande incidental music. This strange Maeterlinck fairy-tale got not just music of inspiration from Fauré, but Sibelius, incidental music too, and Schoenberg and Debussy, both of whom started operas. Hearing Debussy was finishing his though, Schoenberg turned his music into a massive forty-five-minute tone-poem of stunning darkness.
Fauré’s rocking Sicilienne is minor-keyed, regretful, prophetic of tragedy perhaps, and utterly beguiling. The accordion here suggests other wind players and is a model of fined-down restraint. It’s clear from this that the accordion’s brilliance lies in how it layers sonorities, playing out to enrich and down to become almost a single line.
Some of that restraint comes to the Mozart, his Flute Concerto in D major K314. Beesley’s superbly attuned to this kind of repertoire too, like the Vivaldi a bright-toned classicism. Her tone’s crisp with that plangent baroque element sometimes seen in Italian flute writing of the period. Her she raises a lively wistfulness even to the opening Allegro aperto, which stratospherically suggests a shaking of the head with trills. then melts with the familiar Andante ma non troppo – Mozart knew how not to let the 18th century flute-tone droop – and finally the bright Allegro send-off.
Benjamin Godard (1849-95) is coming back into some prominence, at least on CD. His Violin Concertos on Naxos – violin and orchestra works had always been taken up by virtuosi like Aaron Rosand – and piano concertos too. He’s a slightly younger contemporary of Massenet, Fauré, Duparc and a bit older than Chausson. He’s not as distinctive, but sometimes nearly so.
This Valse from his Trois Morceaux is a real winner. Lithe, chirpy but with a long flowing legato over the top it’s a workout for the flute but also the most uninhibited use of the accordion as orchestral playmate. This – relatively unfamiliar too – was the most beguiling piece in many ways. It dictated its own sonorities, and we don’t end up re-mapping an orchestra on it for a nano-second which occasionally inheres in the well-trod pieces. But Godard’s intensely scented late-romanticism is a gift for this combination.
Finally the final ‘Badinerie’ from Bach’s Suite No. 2 with the flute obbligato and Churchill’s accordion standing in with pointillistic virtuosity for the orchestra was a spirited send-off. Beesley’s flute-playing here is exultantly dance-like. The velocity’s almost more than the accordion’s sonority can stand – its decay-action isn’t as sharp as rapid counterpoint demands – but how Churchill plays! You’d never notice. More Bach next time. This was beguiling and barnstorming in equal measure.
It ought to be added that there’s potentially some wonderful work out there that proves this kind of repertoire has enormous potential. Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1869-1933), a superb late-Romantic composer with a penchant for jokes, wrote five CDs worth of music for harmonium, even more than he did for the organ and other combinations. The harmonium’s a larger-scaled instrument, but with a flute in the mix, the accordion might well prove a fine transcription candidate. Indeed Beesley knows a flute composition by him and praised it. Karg-Elert and jokes? Peter Churchill might relish a composer who on receiving a doctorate amongst pompous Teutonics suddenly announced: ‘Gentlemen, I have fleas!’