Franz Schubert’s passionate, romantic music seems a perfect place for a fresh start – which is exactly what flutist Nadia Labrie is launching with her new album, “Flute Passion: Schubert.” Some might know her work as half of the duo Similia (with her sister, guitarist Annie Labrie); this is her first solo project and the beginning of a multi-album recording project. Here she explores not only well-known territory with selections from “Die schöne Müllerin” (one of Schubert’s most famous song cycles” and an arrangement of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” but also the Introduction and Variations on “Trockne Blumen,” the only work Schubert composed specifically for flute and piano during his tragically short lifetime.
The album opens with the Arpeggione Sonata in a minor (D. 821), a work that I’ve heard many times with other instrumentation – notably cello, but most recently by fellow Canadian Joel Quarrington on double bass. Going from the sonority of the bass to the soaring high tones of the flute really made Schubert’s melody in this work stand out for me, and Nadia Labrie’s phrasing is particularly lovely. (I’ve always admired flute and woodwind players for their ability to deliver long, legato phrases and keep breathing – I’m not sure I could manage it!) Pianist Mathieu Gaudet provides graceful and sensitive accompaniment to Labrie throughout the album.
Schubert’s song cycles – among them not only “Die schöne Müllerin” but also “Schwanengesang,” a posthumous work from which Labrie and Gaudet draw one piece – have long been a source of inspiration not only for vocalists but also instrumentalists. Here they take full advantage of the lush and expressive melodies in Schubert’s songs, Labrie’s flute soaring above Gaudet’s piano with articulate delicacy.
The album reaches its pinnacle with the closing work, the Introduction and Variations on “Trockne Blumen.” I’ve long been an admirer of the theme-and-variations form of composition (Mozart’s piano variations have long been among my favorites to hear and play), with its space for witty and creative exploration of basic musical themes, and this work does not disappoint. For an example of what I mean, listen to the theme a few times before proceeding on to the variations. Schubert offers a stripped-down version of the song “Trockne Blumen” – once you’re familiar with that, go on to the variations. At their best, theme and variation works provide a dazzling demonstration of composers’ creativity – and they also provide a tremendous challenge to musicians. Labrie and Gaudet prove themselves more than equal to the piece, mastering its most difficult passages with apparent ease.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this album and I very much look forward to what Nadia Labrie explores next in her ongoing “Flute Passion” project. We’re delighted that she took the time to talk with us about the new album.
In the press materials for this album, you mentioned that you find Schubert’s music “so uplifting, so inspiring, so passionate – it taps into the soul, the voice, and the breath of life.” Is recording music by Schubert something you’ve wanted to do for a long time, or did you come to Schubert more recently?
I wanted to record music by Schubert for a long time. I discovered the music piece Introduction and Variations on “Trockne Blumen” at the age of 17. I listened to the lieder song cycle (La Belle Meunière) repeatedly in order to be immersed by the music. At that time, I also discovered Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, but I never had the opportunity to perform it. Since that time, I have rehearsed it regularly, hoping to share my musical interpretation one day.
Several pieces from “Die schöne Müllerin” are included on the album; I’ve often wondered how instrumentalists approach vocal compositions, particularly from the standpoint of phrasing. Singers can of course follow a text and the phrasing of the words – but how do you as an instrumentalist approach the melody, without the text, and phrase it? Do you use the text at all?
This is a very interesting question. Firstly, from an instrumentalist standpoint, words are not as important as to us as they are for singers. However, words inspire us and provide us with a context about the interpretation and the style. Playing the flute shares several similarities with singing a song. As a flutist, the phrasing of the words and the music come very naturally. Words are felt like music notes. For me, each music note has some importance and they are all linked to each other. Like a well-constructed phrase, it has to make sense and bring emotions to life.
As I’ve listened to the “Introduction and Variations on Trockne Blumen” (which, as I read, is the only piece Schubert wrote specifically for flute?), my first thought – as a pianist – is that this is a terrifically daunting piece. (The fourth variation especially makes my fingers ache just listening to the pianist’s part.) Besides the challenge factor, what drew you to this particular piece?
Indeed, the fact that this is the only original piece for flute and piano from Schubert made it the starting point to create this album. The Introduction and Variations on “Trockne Blumen” is the core of our album. When I was studying and learning this piece at the music conservatory, I told myself that one day I will record the Introduction and Variations. Considering all the flute repertoires, I believe this piece to be very important. The beginning is so tragic and it requires flute intensity and finesse at the same time. For both instruments, it is very challenging because Schubert’s music needs to be played with a lot of care for musicality, sensitivity and the flute’s sound quality.
Many people will know you from your work in Duo Similia with your sister, Annie. Is it a challenge to adjust to playing with a pianist as opposed to the guitar, and to being more of a solo artist (if that label even applies, given that accompanists are so vital to soloists)?
It is true that playing with the piano is a lot different than playing with a guitar. With Similia, we have played together all over the world for the past 20 years. We have recorded 4 CDs and we have had a great music career. But for myself, I needed to play and to make people discover the wonderful flute repertoire which can be accompanied by a piano, an orchestra, a string quartet, etc. Indeed, there are so many beautiful pieces for flute and piano! Before Similia, I was always accompanied by a piano, so I am very comfortable with this ensemble. With certainty, the piano is much louder and powerful than the guitar, so I have adapted my flute intensity. The most important for me will always be the musicality.
You’ve come back to recording after a hiatus to focus on your family… how has your perspective changed from then to now?
You know, I only stopped playing for one year because having two children was very challenging and my sister also had two babies. At the beginning, we thought it will not change anything and we continued touring in Asia. However, after Annie’s second child, it was just too much! In my case, having a break from music made me think about my dreams, what I wanted to do musically for the next ten years. I realized that I really needed to play again and to express myself with music. After a week vacation with my husband in the Swiss Alps (without kids!), on the return flight, I had a very strong feeling that I had to come back to fulfill my dreams and to start recording again. I then wrote down everything I wanted to accomplish, I was shaking because the feeling was so strong. I shared my goals with my husband. Since then, we have focused on trying to fulfill my dreams. His help and support were very important and he is now my manager! Jeannot has had a well-established career with Cirque Éloize (Co-Founder and Artistic Director) and he knew how to help me by giving me wings! Now, I think I came back with more confidence and a more mature approach to music and to my music career. I consider I am more grounded and I feel ready to share my interpretation of more “serious” works by wonderful composers.
I believe I read that this album is the first of several planned projects; can you give us any hints on what you have coming next as far as recordings?
The flute repertoire is very wide. As a Canadian woman flutist soloist, I think I can influence younger generations with a new style of playing, “bringing down” the strong vibrato we were used to hear from other flutists. For me, the main importance is on the singing phrase, the quality and the beauty of the sound. Most importantly, you need to have an open heart while playing. There are numerous wonderful composers I want to “visit” with my interpretation such as Mozart, Bach, Debussy, Ravel, and many more!
Photo credit: Laurence Labat