Recording of the Month November 2010
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.