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Variations Review

by James Manheim

This is an ambitious disc, despite all the light music contained therein -- indeed, these days it seems as though some of the most ambitious discs are just the ones that have the least serious music. This is all to the good -- it may be that comedy is a higher art form than tragedy inasmuch as tragedy is all around us and needs merely to be reproduced by the artist, while comedy has to be made from scratch. Korean flutist Soyoung Lee resurrects a group of variation sets (mostly on operatic tunes) that would have been well known to concertgoers of the nineteenth century but, except for a few that were previously exhumed by Rampal and other flutists, have been essentially forgotten since. The composers are little known except for Chopin, and the Variations on a theme of Rossini, Op. posth. of Chopin that is included is absolutely uncharacteristic of Chopin but very much of a piece with the rest of the compositions on the album. They are showy and fun, calling for a mixture of technical proficiency and a certain star quality from the flutist. Lee is relaxed and facile enough to accomplish the combination, and the restraint of accompanist Kikuko Ogura -- this is music in which the accompanist has to guide the soloist but not take any space in the spotlight at all -- is admirable. Against this parade of variations Lee sets up a couple of weightier counterpoints. One has to do with the technical innovations in flute design during the period when these works were composed. The booklet does a good job of relating the virtuosity of each individual work to its locale and time. Another is the inclusion of a contemporary composition in the middle of the disc: Eugene Lee's Western Wind for solo flute is based on the same medieval English poem that eventually gave rise to the Westron Wynde Mass of Taverner. The poem, according to the booklet, "is understood here in a classical Korean conception, tempered by contemporary sensibility." Eugene Lee is a serialist disciple of Milton Babbitt, so one must leave it to listeners trained in that system to evaluate the success of the enterprise. It is also pointed out that the serialist idea is related to the variation procedure. The transition to this work and back again to the nineteenth century is accomplished seamlessly by the flutist, and the sound from France's Skarbo label transmits the delicacy and warmth of her playing. This is an essential disc for flutists and their friends, and anyone looking for chamber music that audiences of Flaubert's time would have heard for fun is advised to check it out as well.

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