The Slow Movement Project

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So. One of my new year’s resolutions that’s kicking along nicely is what I’ve dubbed the “Slow Movement Project” – that is, I’ll learn a slow movement (or solo, or section of a work) per week, listening to 2-3 or more recordings and mimicking inflection, articulation, colour, vibrato, etc. and then letting my own interpretation develop out of that.

Last week I did the stunning second movement from Haydn’s flute sonata in G (actually his string quartet op.77 no.1):


That recording (Juliette Hurel and Hélène Couvert) is definitely my favourite, although having listened to the bold, brilliant – and by today’s standards, a little messy, and perhaps overly emotive (read: vibrating) – recording by Jean-Pierre Rampal, I believe Hurel was very much influenced by it. It’s always good to listen to Rampal’s playing to appreciate how much the style of playing has changed in the last two generations (NOT a dead tradition!), a change regularly attributed to a perfectionism ‘necessary’ for recording, although changes like this occurred regularly throughout the history of western art music (Moyse’ discussion in his book How I stayed in shape on vibrato coming into fashion in the late 19th/early 20th century is a case in point).

And Rampal has such character and pizazz! A friend recently asked me if I thought it was possible to properly communicate form and content of music if technical perfection is not achieved – I think Rampal is an example that in fact pushing to and occasionally past your limit points can produce results that are not only true to the music, but communicates something extra-instrumental to the audience. (Whether this is the same for contemporary art music, in particular in a modernist style, is something to be experimented with – I don’t just mean playing in a romantic fashion, but rather exploring the limit points of your technical ability.) The flipside is that technically ‘perfect’ performances often, in my experience, fall short on both counts.

Juliette Hurel’s playing, however, manages to check all the boxes. She never overshoots, but manages to find an extraordinary palette of expression within a contained classical style. Her phrase-shaping is phenomenal and she sends chills down your spine with the climax (around 4’35” to 5′) without it being huge. Such clarity of tone and restraint seems so perfect for Classical era music – she manages to maintain this without sacrificing a creative and beautiful interpretation (of course it helps that the pianist is simply incredible). I’ve spent a fair bit of time trying to match her straight tone and colour, and her perfectly clear articulation.

This week, in the interest of learning some of the orchestral excerpts I’m guessing will appear in the QSO casual audition list (doing that in February), I’m doing the flute solo from Gluck’s Orpheus and Euridice – “Dance of the Blessed Spirits”:


I’ve mostly chosen this video as it’s played quite nicely on period instruments and because the dance adds a nice visual interest (interesting that they’ve chosen a period instrument performance to match more contemporary choreography!), but there’s also another Rampal, which in this case is probably my favourite YouTube recording at least.

This has to be one of the most beautiful flute solos in the orchestral literature, lilting and melancholy, with some gentle ascending lines that warm the heart. Conveying all that is has to offer is challenging, as it’s necessary to maintain colour across the range of the instrument and have excellent breath control. A generic problem for me is avoiding a kind of ‘fixed’ embouchure – I get a bit stuck in one that seems to work, but I lose all flexibility and true control of dynamic variation, and end up sounding a bit samey, or even straining in order to come back to softs in particular. This has a been a good exercise in constantly reminding myself to relax and change, find a good sound with a flexible embouchure.

Next week I plan to work on another orchestral classic: the flute solo from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. I will be doing up a list to just work my way through in the coming weeks in consultation with Patrick and other teachers I work with.

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