Notes and Editorial Reviews
Charm, craftsmanship and a special kind of poetic feeling.
A SONG WITHOUT WORDS: THE LEGACY OF PAUL TAFFANEL
Kenneth Smith (fl); Paul Rhodes (pn)
DIVINE ART 21371 (3 CDs: 232:36)
Fantaisie sur “Le Freyschütz.” Morceaux de lecture à vue.
Dance of the Blessed Spirits.
Flute Sonata, “Undine,”
Nocturne in F?,
Pelléas et Mélisande:
Morceau de Concours.
op. 23/1, “Lydienne.”
Romance for Flute & Piano.
Suite for Flute & Piano.
Ballade et danse des lutins.
2 Pieces for Flute & Piano.
Fantaisie Pastorale Hongroise.
Suite for Flute & Piano,
Songs Without Words:
This massive undertaking—and make no mistake, a three-CD set of nothing but piano-accompanied flute playing
a massive undertaking in today’s market, where flash and ephemera masquerade as art—is a simply mind-boggling act of selfless dedication from the Philharmonia Orchestra’s principal flutist since 1983, Kenneth Smith. I’ve long been familiar with Paul Taffanel’s gorgeous wind quintet (recorded in the early 1960s by the New York Woodwind Ensemble, among others), but until receiving this set for review I had no idea that he was to the flute what Kreisler was to the violin or Cortot to the piano, a pioneer who took his instrument out of the realm of mere flashy virtuoso showpieces and made it a warm, expressive instrument, worthy of the very finest music one could write for it. And write they did, not only fellow-flutist Georges Barrère or noted composers, such as Reinecke, Saint-Saëns, Durand, Mouquet, Grandval, but even the organist Charles-Marie Widor. They all recognized Taffenel as a musical genius, not only a great technician, but a highly expressive player who exalted his instrument.
One reason I consider this project to be not only massive but daring is that, unless your name is Jean-Pierre Rampal or James Galway, your chances of getting three full CDs of your playing issued nowadays are slim and none (and, as they say, slim just left town). Comparisons may be odious (though I, for one, don’t subscribe to that theory), but the fact remains that unless one is a
serious student of the flute one is unlikely to have heard of Smith or be willing to spend money on a set like this in order to hear a great deal of obscure flute works accompanied only by piano for nearly four hours.
But, by golly, Smith keeps you hooked through the whole set. His tone is warm and ingratiating, his technique deceptively flawless (he doesn’t dazzle you except in two or three pieces, but he’s so good that you never notice all the hard work that went into it), and his style thoroughly apropos for the era. As he himself says, he approached these works in the spirit of late 19th-century musicianship, which at that time meant a great deal of rubato or, as Smith puts it, “performances that could seem rather indulgent to current musical taste.” But he is true to his vision, so much so that his performance of the long flute solo in Gluck’s
Dance of the Blessed Spirits
can be favorably compared to that of the legendary John Amans in his 1929 recordings of the piece with the New York Philharmonic.
As can be imagined, none of these works are harmonically advanced—Debussy was still a young composer when Taffenel wound down his career in the early 1890s—and there are a lot of Romances and Nocturnes here, but none of the music is trash by any definition. These are very well-written pieces, tonal and romantic to be sure, but not in any way embarrassing to their composers. Taffenel’s own transcription of highlights from Weber’s
compares favorably with Sarasate’s
fantasy, certainly not an inconsequential piece in itself, and in the longer works (Doyen’s
Grandval’s suite, and the sonatas by Reinecke and Widor), there is real imagination at work. The music here covers the entire range of the instrument, from top to bottom, but again, it does not do so in a flashy or superficial manner.
Smith is, quite simply, a superb flutist, and I sincerely hope that this set brings him some solo-concert recognition. Even though he has recorded the Mozart flute concerti with the Philharmonia, Vivaldi concerti with the London Musici, and Bach’s
No. 2 with Maurice André and the Philharmonia, he’s certainly not a household name. Perhaps this set will help. Accompanist Paul Rhodes should not by any means be slighted for his contribution to this set. His consistently lively yet warm playing is the perfect partner for Smith’s flute. With a lesser pianist, there is no way that Smith, or the music, makes as strong of an impression. You may not want to listen to all three CDs, as I did when reviewing, in one sitting, but I guarantee that you’ll want to hear “what comes next.” It’s that kind of set.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Theobald Boehm revolutionised the flute with his invention of an instrument in which the holes were placed where they needed to be for acoustic reasons. In essence earlier instruments had holes placed in places convenient for the fingers, requiring cross fingering and the adjustment of individual notes to enable them be played in tune. His further development of cylindrical rather than conical cross-section led to the popularity of metal instruments.
Paul Taffanel (1844-1908) was a French flautist who took advantage of the capabilities of the new instrument to create what was in effect a whole new school of playing, and a new, more liquid and expressive sound. Nowadays this French school is almost universal but comparisons of early recordings show that only a century ago there still existed distinct English and German schools. It was largely the influence of Taffanel’s playing and of his many pupils, including Marcel Moyse, arguably the greatest flautist of the twentieth century, that led to this dominance by the French. I love the distinctive sounds of orchestras in the early twentieth century but listening to Moyse’s many recordings and to these discs it is easy to understand the attraction to modern players of the sheer beauty of sound and eloquence of the French approach.
As far as I am aware this is the first time that a determined effort has been made on disc to examine thoroughly music directly associated with Taffanel. Although he wrote much for teaching, the only wholly original material actually composed by him here is a set of three pieces intended as tests for sight-reading. They are brief and would surely achieve their main aim, but unusually they are entertaining for the listener. In addition by Taffanel himself there are a Fantasie on themes from “Der Freischütz” and transcriptions of music by Chopin and Saint-Saëns. These are all especially suited to the kind of expressive variations of tone to which Taffanel aspired. The former shows the kind of fluency of technique which composers for the instrument expected and exploited.
Although there are a few familiar names and works elsewhere on these discs, including Reinecke’s delightful “Undine” Sonata, Doppler’s “Fantasie Pastorale Hongroise” and Widor’s Suite, the majority are likely to be unfamiliar, certainly to most musicians but even to many flautists. There is nonetheless immense pleasure to be obtained here. The most striking thing is the sheer expertise with which these pieces are composed. Even if musically some may seem to lack originality or to have little to say, they say it so well and with such engaging craftsmanship that the listener is willing to forgive them. This applies to many of the works on the second disc in particular. The dedicated efforts of Kenneth Smith and Paul Rhodes here as elsewhere present the music at its best. Admittedly it would be unwise to listen to too much of this at once as a certain sameness does become all too apparent. Similarly I should note that for all his undoubted virtuosity and beauty of tone, Kenneth Smith lacks the variety of tone colour of Marcel Moyse - but then, so do most flautists. Incidentally no recordings exist of Taffanel himself.
This set would be worthwhile having for the rarity and interest of its contents alone. It is made an essential purchase for flautists or anyone with a particular interest in French music of the late nineteenth century by the superb booklet. This has full notes on each work (in English, French and German) and its composer, and in addition some fascinating photographs of Taffanel. It’s a pity they are not reproduced in a larger format, especially that of him demonstrating his
embouchure. It would be a mistake to claim that these discs contained music of great importance or, in general, depth, but what the many works here do have is charm, craftsmanship and a special kind of poetic feeling that was suited to Taffanel’s art. When in addition it is all beautifully played, recorded and presented you have a set which surely must be a candidate for an ideal Christmas present for any music-lover whatever their usual musical interests.
-- John Sheppard, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Poèmes grecs by Albert Doyen
Kenneth Smith (Flute),
Paul Rhodes (Piano)
Romance, Op. 7 by Jacques Durand
Kenneth Smith (Flute),
Paul Rhodes (Piano)
Romance sans paroles by Felix Mendelssohn
Kenneth Smith (Flute),
Paul Rhodes (Piano)
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