CD Reviews – Beth Denisch: Images of Eve


CD: Images of Eve

 “Flowing effortlessly through a kaleidoscope of styles, textures, and timbres, this wonderful CD is an important contribution to the growing oeuvre of flute music by women.”

-Nanette Kaplan Solomon

     This beautifully performed and mastered CD presents a rich trove of both original flute compositions and transcriptions from an assortment of styles and genres.  If, as the title suggests, Eve represents the eternal feminine, the images of women presented here are far more multifaceted than the iconic “Three Faces of Eve” of 1957 film fame. Flutist Wendy Rolfe, a faculty member at the Berklee College of Music, and her wonderful collaborator, Deborah DeWolf Emery, classmates at Oberlin Conservatory, and now professionals in the Boston area, have assembled an outstanding program that presents some “classic” women composers such as Amy Beach, Clara Schumann, and Cécile Chaminade, as well as colleagues and graduates from the Berklee School of Music – Beth Denisch, I-Yun Chang, and Kazuyo Kuriya, and long-time friends and acquaintances.  Not only does the CD run the gamut from Romantic salon pieces to contemporary fare to Latin American inspired works (reflecting Ms. Rolfe’Fulbright year in Ecuador and her frequent concert tours in Brazil and other South American venues), but the performer plays various historical and modern flutes depending on the repertoire, and employs piccolo, alto and bass flute to add to the timbral variety.

     A la Prokofiev, by contemporary American composer Gretchen Hewitt (a graduate of Oberlin, who has lived in St. Louis and Seattle and now resides in Abu Dhabi), most certainly lives up to its eponymous title. It opens with a lyrical, homophonic section, and then transitions to a more dissonant contrapuntal interplay between flute and piano, with sudden juxtapositions of disparate tonal areas that we associate with Prokofieff. 

     Brazilian pianist and composer Francesca Edwiges Neves (“Chiquinha”) Gonzaga (1847-1935), not only played an important role in the 19th century Brazilian music scene, but was a leading advocate for women’s rights in Brazil, and was the first woman to obtain a legal divorce in Brazil. She performed in flutist Joaquim Callado’s Choro Carioca band. Her Radiante, performed here by Ms. Rolfe and guitarist Eduardo Mercuri and percussionist  Julio Santos, projects energetic rhythmic motives against soaring flute linesreminiscent of the music of famed Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth.

Beth Denisch’s suite Three Women was one of my favorite selections on this disc. Denisch, a colleague of Ms. Rolfe on the Berklee faculty, drew her inspiration for these pieces (adapted from her own song cycle) from poems about Biblical women. “Miriam’s Ballad” based on “Miriam’s Dance” by Rosie Rosenzweig has a lyrical, melodious character- (Miriam’s “tuneful voice” per Joshua and Georg Frederic Handel), with a dactylic piano ostinato that pervades. “Rachel’s Song” was inspired by the poem “My Baby Has No Name Yet” by Kim Nan-Jo, and features flute figurations that evoke bird songs and Native American music, with some pointillistic fragments throughout. “Ruth’s Dance”, based on the poem “Facial” by Allison Joseph has a New Age popular feel, in a fast waltz with interesting syncopations.   One hopes to hear more from this very imaginative composer. (My only complaint is that neither the CD liner notes nor Ms. Denisch’s websites contain the texts of the poems- I would have liked to have had them!).

     Composer I-Yun Chung, a Berklee alum, is represented by two works- Recuerdos, adapted for flute and guitar from her 2008 original tune for two guitars, and 1,2,3,4, which she wrote specifically for this recording.  Recuerdos features the beautiful, clear sustained lines of Ms. Rolfe’s flute against a dance-like ostinato in the guitar. 1,2,3,4, also in Latin character, provides an excellent complement to the previous work in its evocation of the Brazilian “choro”- an urban popular genre meaning lament or cry, but paradoxically containing fast, happy rhythms, virtuosity and subtle modulations. The ensemble among flute, guitar, and percussion is stellar, with crisp articulations and clearly delineated phrases.

     The middle portion of the CD features more familiar historical composers. Clara Schumann’s Romance (originally written for violin and dedicated to the great Joseph Joachim) is typical of her style, with yearning melodic lines and chromatic harmonies.  Rolfe’s beautiful warm sound is enhanced by the dulcet tones of the 1876 Rudall Carte flute.  While most flutists are overfamiliar with Cécile Chaminade’s Concertino, her Pastorale Enfantine, op. 12 presented here is a gentler effort, with typical rollicking sixteenth note figures in an idyllic context.

     Amy Beach is represented by three violin works in flute transcriptions. Invocation, op. 55 features Fauré-like long lines and post-Romantic harmonies. Mazurka, op. 40, no. 3 has the typical accent and rhythmic pattern of that dance, and Romance, op. 23 sounds as if it emerged directly from an Edwardian parlor. While the transcriptions work well on the flute, particularly the first and last works, I missed the “grit” and bite of the violin timbre in the Mazurka.

     Kazuko Kuriya is a flutist and composer who performs and records with her own big band. This jazz influence is evident in her Green Tree House, which was inspired by a trip with her mother to Yakushima, a beautiful island in Japan. This attractive piece fuses pentatonic Asian sonorities with rhythmic jazz elements, somewhat reminiscent of the music of Claude Bolling. Born in South Wales, and now a professor of music at Union College in Schenectady, New York, Hilary Tann is a well-known and often performedcomposer. Her 1985 work Windhover, originally written for soprano saxophone, is here effectively turned into a solo flute tour-de-force (by the composer). Tann claims that the piece presents “the idea of flight from a falcon’s point of view. Sections of slow soaring, where strength and detailed focus predominate, alternate with swifter sections where the blurring of the rush of flight takes over”. Tann evokes the sound of the shakuhachi flute, and Rolfe’s flawless intonation and flexible phrasing perfectly emulate the swooping and soaring of the legendary bird.  The work concludes with a hauntingly effective repeated-note vibrato (almost a bebung effect). This impressive, atmospheric piece was also one of my favorites on the CD, and deserves a permanent place in the flute repertoire.

     The very colorful and evocative Midsummer Moon by Rebecca Clarke once again showcases the sensitive and superb ensemble of Ms. Rolfe and pianist Emery. Originally written for violin, the transference to flute creates a haunting, eerie mood, particularly effective in the folk-like melodies and the “nightingale” calls in the middle section. 

     The final work on the CD returns to the infectious rhythms and sonorities of Brazil. Francisca Aquino is a pianist and composer living in Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. The seven short movements of her Música Brasiliera para a Iniciante (Brazilian Music for the Beginner) present different styles of Brazilian music from cheerful upbeat dances to whimsical caprices. The penultimate piece, “Bossa”- alludes to the melody of the famous “Girl from Ipanema”. Rather than ending with a virtuosic flourish, the final “Balada” fades off quietly into the distance, leaving a breathtaking question mark, rather than a forte exclamation point. Flowing effortlessly through a kaleidoscope of styles, textures, and timbres, this wonderful CD is an important contribution to the growing oeuvre of flute music by women.  The masterful playing by Ms. Rolfe, Ms. Emery and their assisting artists bring these engaging works to full sonorous life.

     Dr. Nanette Kaplan Solomon is Professor Emerita from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. She performs frequently as a soloist and chamber musician, and has been on the board of the IAWM, College Music Society, and Pennsylvania Music Teachers Association.  Her three compact discs- Piano Music of Nikolai Lopatnikoff (Laurel) , Character Sketches:  Solo Piano Works by Seven American Women (Leonarda), and Sunbursts: Solo Piano Works by Seven American Women (Leonarda) have received critical acclaim. She recently recorded piano music by Mana-Zucca for a forthcoming release on an Albany CD.