Jean Rivier was a contemporary of Jean Francaix (1902-1998)
and Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). I mention these particular figures
because they were both keen on the flute and all composed chamber music
in a not-dissimilar language. In fact I would say that Rivier is a better
and more interesting composer than Francaix but not as memorable and
characteristic as Poulenc.
There was a time, in the old days of Radio 3, when
Jean Rivier’s music ‘popped up’ in morning programmes, now and again.
More recently, I’ve seen his name listed for a broadcast at 3.00 a.m.
or some other unearthly hour. But mostly his music has faded from even
that somewhat flimsy position.
Like other French composers Rivier was a lover of the
flute and writes brilliantly for it. Nowhere is this more noticeable
than in the three-movement Sonatine. What a wonderful work - especially
its helter-skelter Finale where the instrument is treated virtuosically,
contrasting with the mountain stream delicacy of the middle movement
where the instrument’s lyrical character is emphasized. Especially of
interest with regard to the lyrical nature of the flute are the two
unaccompanied pieces although they both contain flighty arabesques and
writing which creates a number of challenges for the performer.
The booklet notes (by Julie Stone one of the flautists,
and Leone Buyse herself) attempt, very well I think, to ‘nail down’
Rivier’s language. I quote "his music is characterized by such
techniques as modality, quartal and quintal harmonies" (building
harmonies in 4ths and 5ths) "polychords, parallelism, ornamentation,
extreme of tessitura, and intensely contrasting moods." And if
you think that these terms could be applied to any 20th Century composer
the notes offer further explanation: "Prominent also are three
distinct stylistic elements: gentle flowing lyricism, dramatic dynamism
and charmingly persistent wit". Gosh. Well all that I can say is
‘don’t let that lot put you off’. This is charming music, written with
felicity and craftsmanship and performed with dedication and consummate
skill. I particularly admire Leone Buyse’s phrasing in the more delicate
music like the slightly enigmatic ‘Ballade’ where an air of mystery
is important towards the end. I also admire the use of the lower register
which is particularly significant in the ‘Vocalise’ (an unpublished
work). The blend of the flute with the woodwind is delightful in the
fascinating ‘Capriccio’, which, rather sensibly, opens the disc and
gives it a strong start. Its varied textures will immediately wipe away
any fear you might have that Rivier is another second-rate, vacuous
French composer. It certainly has its dark side especially in the low
writing for bassoon and clarinet in movement 2, marked ‘Mélancolique’.
The last piece on the disc is actually Rivier’s last
flute work written after a composing career of almost sixty years. It
is just a little piece for young flautists but possesses great charm
and elegance. It’s almost my favourite piece on the record.
The recording is first class and well balanced. The
neatly folding booklet is, I’m afraid, confusingly set out but with
good notes on the music and the musicians with translations from the
American (!) into French. So, why not take the plunge. You don’t need
to be an aficionado of the flute to appreciate this wonderful playing
and fine music. Rivier may represent a by-way in 20th century music
but there is no doubt in my mind that it is one which I hope to further
explore, perhaps you will too.