This set of three discs incorporates repertoire which was performed or composed by Paul Taffanel. Taffanel was one of the leading flautists of the renowned French School, which developed a style of playing which has influenced flute playing on an international scale. His contribution to flute history was remarkable, and it is appropriate that these works should be brought together in a boxed set. The discs are entitled Vision, Dedication and Imagination, and each covers a different aspect of Taffanel’s musical legacy.
Volume 1, Vision – This opens with one of Taffanel ‘s best known compositions, the Fantasie on Der Freischutz by Weber . Ken Smith’s silky flute tone immediately grabs the attention. This, combined with the sensitive piano playing of Paul Rhodes, makes for an excellent duo. Overall the tempos in the opening sections are well controlled, and the players resist the temptation to rush through the fast sections, instead finding musical space and charm in the phrases. There is never a sense that this is merely technical display, as is sometimes the case with performances of this piece.
Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits is played with similar levels of sensitivity, and it is in the simplicity of these musical lines where this duo really shines; simple music is difficult to execute well, and this is one of the most musically satisfying performances of this piece that I have heard. Reinecke’s Undine Sonata follows, played gently and with a sense of flow. Moments of drama are heard in juxtaposition with some well shaped phrases, and the flute line is complemented well by the beautifully played piano part.
Taffanel ‘s transcription of Chopin’s F sharp major Nocturne demonstrates the composer’s skill of orchestration, while his beautiful sight-reading pieces, Morceaux de lecture a vue demonstrate charm and elegance in abundance. Alphonse Catherine ‘s enjoyable Nocturne features some beautiful lyrical lines, while Fauré ‘s well known Sicilienne is heard here with a sense of lightness and direction. Two other Fauré works feature here, the Morceau de Concours , commissioned by Taffanel as a sight-reading test at the Paris Conservatoire, and the Fantaisie , which was written as one of the first in a long tradition of examination pieces.
Two further salon pieces bring the first disc to a close, Mouquet ‘s Divertissements Grecs , which is played with warmth and a wonderfully singing tone, and Saint-Saëns ‘ op. 51 Romance , transcribed by Taffanel.
Volume 2 Dedication – contains a selection of much less well-known pieces which were all composed for Taffanel. Clémence de Grandval ‘s Suite opens with a Prelude, with a simple flute line accompanied by a flowing piano part. The second movement is a playful Scherzo with an enjoyable dialogue between the parts. The remaining movements demonstrate both considerable melodic interest and the flute’s range of tone colours – two aspects of the French flute school which have helped to characterise the style.
Emile Bernard was a contemporary of Taffanel’s, who is probably best known for his wind ensemble piece, Divertissement , which was also commissioned by Taffanel. This Romance was originally composed for flute and orchestra but also exists with a piano reduction. Its style is typical of the period, with lyrical lines interspersed with moments of drama. This is a thoroughly enjoyable piece, played well in this recording.
François Borne ‘s contribution to the flute repertoire remains most notably in the Carmen Fantasie ; it is interesting to hear one of his other flute works recorded here. The Ballade et Danse des Lutins is a slow-fast work with a wonderful sense of character and an expansive and expressive opening section. The dance has beautifully swirling melodies, and a sense of light-hearted drama.
Concert pieces by Lefèbvre and Reynaud follow; delightful pieces within the style of the time, with slow episodes featuring simple and effective melodic lines and gently undulating accompaniments. The faster sections have a dancing character and more of a sense of interjection between flute and piano.
The disc ends with Charles-Wilfred Bériot ‘s Sonata , which is a three movement work of reasonably substantial proportions. Taffanel performed this piece many times. It is a well-composed work with a good sense of structure and considered harmonies. The second movement is particularly enticing, with a beautiful slow opening followed by a joyful scherzo.
Volume 3 – Imagination – The final disc of the set begins with Barrère ‘s beguiling Nocturne . Barrère was a Taffanel pupil who spent some time in New York and was one of the main protagonists in disseminating the French style of flute playing in America. This is a calm and beautiful piece, which is performed well here. Albert Doyen ‘s Poèmes Grecs are a set of five short pieces for flute and piano. These are impressionistic and conjure up a sense of atmosphere. One can almost imagine a set of paintings depicting the individual movements.
Romances follow by Alfred Bruneau and Jacques Durand , before the second of two complete recital programmes begins with Doppler ‘s popular Fantasie Pastorale Hongroise (Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy). The opening here is not rushed, and is played with a sense of control and a hint of nostalgia. The cadenzas are understated and this performance lacks an overlay of ego from either of the performers. A sense of drama remains, however, and the latter sections of the piece have both drive and energy without losing musicality. Saint-Saëns ‘ beautiful Romance follows, with Smith’s even-toned flute line sensitively accompanied by Rhodes’ flowing accompaniment. This is an excellent rendition, which captures the sentiment of Saint-Saëns’ music very well.
Widor ‘s Suite is one of the better known works on this disc, and was written for Taffanel. Demonstrating a range of moods and colours, this four movement piece lasts for almost twenty minutes. This well-controlled performance captures the atmosphere well and has much to offer, with quality playing from both members of the duo, and a good sense of partnership.
The disc ends with a gentle Contemplation by Mendelssohn , which has a beautiful song-like style and lyrical phrases.
Overall, this is an enjoyable set of discs. It is perhaps curious that there were no musical examples of the works of Philippe Gaubert, who was Taffanel’s colleague and co-author of a method book for the flute. Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear this range of well- and less-known pieces from an important era in the flute’s history. Kenneth Smith’s wonderful tone and range of colours is the highlight of the recording, and the musicianship demonstrated by the two artists was a pleasure to experience. If I were to make a criticism, it would be that three discs of fairly similar repertoire did not allow for much contrast, especially in terms of drama and dynamic range, and some of the works, although enjoyable, are not especially memorable. That said, however, this is an excellent document of Taffanel’s legacy and has much that is worthy of praise.