Sunday, March 31, 2013

Ferdinand Rebay: Sonatas for flute and guitar--No.1 in E major

Ferdinand Rebay: Sonatas for flute and guitar
Brilliant Classics 9291, 2012 

Over the last few months I've been soaking up Maria Jose Belotto and Gonzalo Noque's CD of Ferdinand Rebay's sonatas for flute and guitar (Brilliant Classics 9291) The sonatas in E major and D major were both composed during 1942.  Having written in the past about Rebay's sonatas for clarinet and guitar I had planned for some time to blog about more of Rebay's chamber music for guitar.  These two sonatas for flute and guitar are an interesting contrast to Rebay's sonatas for clarinet and guitar.  The clarinet sonatas were cast in the keys of D minor and A minor around 1941 and those works are pervaded by a Brahmsian melancholy with a few thematic appearances by Schubert.  Rebay's flute sonatas, by contrast, are bright, lyric, and neoclassical.  In fact Rebay's sonatas for flute and guitar are suffused with a serenity that I find unusual even for flute and guitar literature, a serenity that can border at times on emotional detachment. 

Now it is possible the flute and guitar are simply a combination that inspires guitarists and composers alike to create unusually limpid and airy works.  Castelnuovo-Tedesco's duet is lively, sometimes thoughtful, but never particularly somber.  Giuliani's collected output for flute and guitar could be considered light, perhaps even trivial for listeners who haven't or won't take a shine to chamber music for the guitar.  Even if Giuliani's works resemble lighter moods from Mozart the lack of body in the guitar's voice and its remarkable decay rate can make a work in the Classic era style seem more limpid and evanescent than usual.  On the whole I have to search high and low for flute and guitar literature that is actually dark or brooding or fiery.  Piazzolla's work for flute and guitar gets fiery and somber, but I don't hear in them darkness so much as passion.  Only Nikita Koshkin's Sonata for flute and guitar, of the flute and guitar literature I've had a chance to hear, plays with darkness and grotesquery.  So when I wrote earlier that Rebay's flute and guitar sonatas seem serene even to the point of detachment I wrote that with this broader observation about the literature in mind. 

In saying that these sonatas by Rebay seem to have an emotional remove I'm not making a negative remark about them.  I love the music of Shostakvoich, which most people have understood to have within itself an emotional distance.  There may be bitterness or sorrow hidden behind ostensibly triumphant, heroic themes.  Even in his happiest music Shostakovich often conveys a subliminal misery.  I'm sure not everyone will agree that Rebay's flute sonatas have an emotional detachment, let alone that there is a peaceful undercurrent, a sort of serenity beneath the serenity that some might consider emptiness.  Well, I'm not the sort of listener who hears that in Rebay.  His sonatas are pristine and immaculate and if they were written this way in the midst of global conflict let's remember that a composer like Rebay didn't exactly give way either to the Expressionist or New Objectivism fads that permeated German music between the wars.  Rebay's style is deliberately conservative and now that Cold Wars and other ideologically saturated movements that Rebay didn't seem to be part of have long since gone it's just as well we've discovered Rebay's work roughly half a century after he passed.   

The Sonata for flute and Guitar in E major opens with a simple rising melody (that begins with a rising perfect fourth) that is often the start of a marching theme.  What we get is a more delicate and light-footed walk than a boot-wearing march.  The mood is light, airy and considered.  This is thoughtful happiness rather than explosive joy.  It is a happiness that can be continuously if slightly tinged with minor key interruptions and asides--we're given enough darkness not to hint at sadness so much as to give the happiness momentum.  The few dissonances in this opening sonata form we hear are given by Rebay as though to let us savor from a distance the unhappiness that isn't going to appear in this first movement.   

The second theme in this opening sonata form also begins with a rising fourth played by the flute.  This lilting theme transforms into a set of closing phrases, the flute rises higher and higher as the guitar winds down chromatically through lower and lower notes as both instruments work toward resolving the second theme.  When this second theme returns at the end of the movement it resolves into an ineffably delicate and composed ending.   

While Rebay's work has many neo-Romantic and post-Romantic traits what may be his most striking approach to sonata form is how his development sections tend to trail off and evaporate into the ether before his recapitulations begin.  As a long-time admirer of Haydn and Beethoven I admit this is a quality of Rebay's approach to sonata form I have had to get used to.  I like development sections in sonata forms to inexorably burst forward to the recapitulation.  Having said that, the overall sweetness and calm of Rebay's sonatas for flute and guitar make this aforementioned trait of his sonata developments thoroughly appropriate.

Now in preparing to commend Rebay's handling of variation form I admit I'm going to make a complaint about how some guitarists and composers compose variations.  Variation is a form and method beloved by many who write for the guitar yet it is hardly an easily done art and there are some examples of odious writing in variation forms.  At the risk of offending some people and naming names, I can't stand the variation movements in Carulli's Op. 21 guitar sonatas.  The themes themselves hardly lodge in the memory and the variations are blunt decorations of what are, for me, forgettable themes.  Decorative variation can be the refuge of guitarists and composers who do not understand how freewheeling their options and possibilities really are. 
Another problem guitarists (and those writing for the guitar) can often have (evinced disappointingly in Ponce's Variations and Fugue on La Folia) is making a point of writing variations in a manner which does not necessarily highlight the strengths and possibilities of a theme.  Ponce's work, for instance, makes use of character variation on a theme that I think is too short to sustain character variation form.  To pick two touchstones of variation as counterexamples, consider how long the foundational themes in both the Diabelli Variations and Goldberg Variations actually are.  Character variation works brilliantly in these cycles precisely because we're given themes long enough to give the contrasting characters of each variation time to matter.  It's not that a short theme can't be subjected to character variation, of course, it's that a composer should understand the elements of the foundational theme well enough to understand what shifts in character best highlight the way a theme can change while still being recognizably built upon the founding theme.

Now perhaps it may additionally be said that some guitarists and composers for guitar have simply opted for themes that were never suitable for variation to begin with.  Or perhaps they chose themes that could be varied and then varied them in tedious and uninspiring ways (e.g. Carulli's Op. 21 Guitar Sonatas).   

Having written all those criticisms of variation form from guitarist composers, none of them apply to Rebay's handling of variation form in general or of the variation movement that is movement 2 of his Sonata for flute and guitar in E major.  For instance, after his opening lyric theme is completed Rebay gives a first variation with the flute lilting through a waltzing tune.  Halfway through the variation the guitar plays a 2 across 3 rhythm, an abrupt shift in accent that will prepare us for the perkier second variation but suggests the potential to derail the meter away from 3/4 into 2/4. 

But instead we are led into a lively dance variation where the flute flutters up and down in a brief prelude to the climactic parallel minor variation.  It's common in Classic era variation forms to interrupt a set of variations on a major theme with an aside in parallel minor.  Rebay delivers and it's one of the moments in his E major sonata flirts with the edges of sadness. But not for long, the intimations of 2 from the rhythms of 3 turn up as a 6/8 dance that rounds off the variations.  We're given hints of the pathos from the previous variation but it's still a sweet, happy end to the variations on the theme.   

As if sensing that we've had too much laconic sweetness Rebay shifts gears with the lively scherzo that makes the third movement.  The opening theme is abrupt and, atypical of scherzo and minuets, does not repeat.  The repeating phrases are saved for the minor key trio.  But even this section has just one repeating phrase that is then sequentially developed in major, giving the flute and guitar cascading call and response phrases that lead back to the boisterous initial theme.  Here we see an example of Rebay's skill as a composer.  His opening sonata and variation forms made use of a lot of structural and conceptual repetition.  Rebay shows in the Scherzo that he appreciated the ideals of the Classic era in which balance and proportion were not just matters within phrases but in forms, even in forms within forms.  At the risk of making yet another aside about guitarists, this is the kind of thing I'm not always convinced we guitarists have taken fully to heart.  Rebay's music has a few lessons we can learn if we're game.  Of course the works of Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart would also be instructive, to say the least.   

Rebay's fourth and final movement in the E major sonata is a laidback Rondo.  If it were any more laidback I could have mistaken it for something by Claude Bolling (if we took out quite a bit of the jazz influence). 
Obviously I've written at such length about the first sonata it will be no surprise I have enough to say about the second sonata that it will get a separate post.

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