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Rotholz and Crow Shine at Vassar

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Feb 18th, 2018

Todd Crow and Susan Rotholz

Vassar’s Skinner Hall featured a Faculty Recital Sunday afternoon with flautist Susan Rotholz accompanied by Todd Crow on piano. The delightful program offered a variety of styles mostly in sonata format.

They opened with Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano (1957) which Poulenc had composed for Jean-Pierre Rampal. This tour-de-force showcase for flute is now one of Poulenc’s best-known works; it is a beguiling dazzle of fireworks in three movements. Rotholz possesses a marvelous tone with the casual ability to create that soft disappearance of sound that echoes in memory.

Claude Debussy’s Syrinx for Solo Flute (1913) only runs for three minutes, yet those three minutes are legendary. It has inspired subsequent composers to discover unusual sound patterns for flute. Although Debussy demanded others play his work exactly as written, this piece is noted for its freedom of interpretation by performers. Rotholz laid out a performance that was eerily haunting with both raw primitive power and elegance roiling the pathos of the disappointed lover, Pan himself. The color and range of this incidental piece inspired Honegger and Ibert to compete with it.  

After a brief intermission, composer Richard Wilson appeared as Todd Crow’s page turner for Bohuslav Martinu’s First Sonata for Flute and Piano (1945). (Amid Martinu’s over 400 compositions the promised sequel never appeared.) Martinu’s mother had died the year before and he had just heard that his friend Stanislav Novák died of a broken heart after hearing his wife and children died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Martinu felt he needed a recuperative vacation and he chose Cape Cod. The opening Allegro moderato appears to paint the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean; the following Adagio sounds like a melancholy lament for the catastrophe of the Holocaust on the other side of the ocean; the concluding Allegro poco moderato concerns a wounded whippoorwill Martinu discovered and nursed to health with his dedicated encouragement, the whippoorwill becoming in his mind the symbol of a wounded society. The upbeat conclusion has the fierce, resilient, hopeful sound in the flute part of the whippoorwill regaining health, as Martinu hoped his beloved Prague would. Wilson was needed as the piano at Crow’s fingertips had runs and jumps aplenty on the keys.

Olivier Messiaen’s 1952 Le Merle Noir (The Blackbird), is Messiaen’s shortest work, which became a famous contest piece for flautists; based upon birdsong, it led Messiaen’s future work to be obsessed by birds. With a palette of color, unusual pauses, and a cacophonous run that demands incredibly rapid and agile fingering, this short work is a marvel and wonder that Rotholz executed with polished perfection.  

Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata for Flute and Piano in D, Op. 94 rounded out the recital. Written in 1943 and premiered in Moscow that December, this sonata is more commonly encountered as Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No.2 (1944), an arrangement done for violinist David Oistrakh at the latter’s request after hearing the sonata at the premiere. While some critics have found the flute version to be anemic nineteenth century academic formula rather than inspired work, on the lips of a really good flautist it remains an unusually pleasing piece due to its varied rhythms, melodic invention, and rapid movements in the second and fourth movements.

I’m not sure exactly when the Sonata was written, but my speculation is that it was written on a train during Prokofiev’s journey from Alma Alta to Moscow (with a four month stop over at Perm where I adopted three Russian children), since the monstrous war appeared to be turning in favor of the Allies. I felt that rural scenery was flitting by my vision. On piano Crow captured the rollicking rhythms of a train with disguised variations, while Rotholtz appeared to record both scenery and her specialty, resonant reverie and the rapid trill that travels down one’s spine with pleasing shock.