by Anthony Kershaw
I first heard of Joshua Smith in 1990 when an old buddy was leaving the Cleveland Orchestra for Philly and Smith, then twenty, replaced him as principal flute. An amazing achievement for one so young, and even more special that he was replacing his teacher.
I’ve heard Smith several times over the years when the Cleveland and I bumped into each other. His artistry has always been front and center of that woodwind section and a joy to hear live. I remember particularly a Bruckner 5 at Severance Hall. His playing was exquisite. I heard them last week in Toronto and reviewed the concert for Audiophilia. More superb playing from Smith and his cohorts.
This beautiful playing continues in full effect throughout this wonderful new Bach disc from Delos. It contains four of the six Sonatas with harpsichord and the superb A minor Solo Partita. Smith includes the B minor, E flat major, G minor and A major Sonatas.
The program begins with what I consider as the Everest of flute sonatas, the great B minor. All technical demands are taken in easy stride, allowing the gorgeous phrasing and limpid tone to caress the notes. It’s almost tactile. And at 66 minutes total playing time for the CD, we almost get too much of a good thing. Then, in comes the splendid harpsichordist, Jory Vinikour to the timbral rescue. He and Smith share the glories equally in the four Sonatas. The give and take suggests lots of wonderful music making together.
Throughout, Smith takes the greatest care with phrasing — nothing sounds rushed or breathless, so easy to do in these fiendishly difficult works. In fact, Smith’s amazing breath control had me wondering whether there had been a bit of fiddling in the mix. Not so, though. He’s just a master of this particular difficulty with the instrument.
For this recording, Smith uses an old Rudall Carte wooden flute with a copy of a Louis Lot head joint. Soft edged and tactile it is. It matches his relaxed style perfectly. For a slightly different approach, see if you can find the silver flute version of the Sonatas by the late, great Elaine Shaffer (my favourite recordings of these masterpieces). Originally on an old EMI LP.
If you are in need of a modern version of these Sonatas, look no further than Joshua Smith. His playing has been hailed as virtuosic and lyrical. He exhibits both here.
One small caveat — I find the acoustic of the Cleveland’s First Baptist Church has too much bloom, lovely as that might be. The percussive harpsichord is heard perfectly but some of Smith’s subtle articulations are lost in the duos. The articulations are heard more easily in the solo work. Smith is placed just ahead of the harpsichord and both instruments are center stage.
That said, let me assure you that within this CD, you’ll hear superb flute playing, great accompanying, and some of the most gorgeous music this side of heaven. Highly recommended.
Delos DE 3402
Playing time: 66:21
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