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French Flute Music
Pierre-Max DUBOIS (1930-1995) Sonata
Philippe GAUBERT (1879-1941) Sonata in A (1917)
Gabriel FAURE (1845-1924) Fantaisie (1898)
Alexandre TANSMAN (1897-1986) Sonatine (1925)
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) Sonata (1956)
Pierre SANCAN (b.1916) Sonatine
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Syrinx (1913)
Jeffrey Khaner, flute, Hugh Sung, piano
Recorded March 1998 at Music Designs Masters, New York City, USA
AVIE AV0027 [66:31]

When reviewing Jeffrey Khaner’s disc of American flute music last year, one reservation I expressed was that there was, understandably, a certain sameness about the programme. That is equally true here; all the music tends to speak with the same ‘accent’ as it were. This is not surprising, and it may be that I am being unfair, and that the perceived sameness would prevail in any selection of flute and piano music written within a fairly tightly defined period; I don’t know. Notice that I use the word ‘sameness’ deliberately, not ‘monotony’, which would be misleading. But, to do it justice, I wouldn’t listen to it all in one ‘go’.

The programme is cleverly devised to include some staple items of the flute repertoire – the Fauré, Poulenc and Debussy pieces – interspersed with some less familiar music, including just the one piece by a living composer, Pierre Sancan. In fairness, one should say that the Dubois, Tansman and, in particular, Gaubert works will be quite familiar to many flautists.

Khaner is principal flautist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and before that held the same position in Cleveland. He is thus a distinguished player by any standards. What is impressive about him, though, is his great musicianship and sense of style. His technique is so secure that one feels that it is being put entirely at the service of the music rather than the reverse, as can be the case with some exponents of this instrument, which does lend itself to fireworks.

The Avie recording is more than acceptable, though it is interesting to note that the engineers seem to have very slightly shifted the balance between flute and piano as compared with the American disc. However, the recording venue has changed, too, so some difference in the sound picture is only to be expected. The result is that Sung is a little further forward, and in places, e.g. the end of the Fauré, seems to be having to play in a deliberately restrained way to avoid drowning Khaner.

Nevertheless, these are convincing and absorbing performances. The Dubois that starts the collection is a most attractive piece. Its chirpy opening recalls the finale of the great Prokofiev sonata, and it shows the influence not only of Les Six, but of their successors such as Ibert or Françaix. The middle movement is a slow, melancholy waltz, which demonstrates Khaner’s fine tone, richly expressive yet pure, with the minimum of that breathiness that can afflict flute sound in the lower registers. The final Rondo is based on a simple, good-natured tune, which is subjected to rigorous transformations, before emerging more or less unscathed. This is an attractive piece, entertaining though not too demanding on the listener.

The Gaubert Sonata in A is a more serious-minded work, beautifully written for the instrument, as you would expect from this composer, who was one of the outstanding players of his generation, and later became a famous conductor. The central Lent movement, is memorable for its wide-ranging melodic lines, as is the main theme of the finale, with its constant questioning cadences. The duo give a committed, idiomatic performance of this exquisite work; they have competition here, principally from Susan Milan and Ian Brown on Chandos, but Khaner and Sung are in no way inferior in their shaping and characterising of the music.

The Fauré Fantaisie is a mere four and a half minutes long, but, as one flautist commented to me, it can seem like an eternity. From the listener’s point of view, however, it is sheer pleasure, from the disconsolately side-stepped cadences of the Andantino, (a link with the Gaubert there), to the effervescent Allegro. Khaner, to his credit, makes it sound like no trouble at all, and the contrasting lyrical theme sings out with appropriate rapture.

I confess to being slightly disappointed with the Tansman. I am generally a great admirer of this Polish-born composer’s attractive music. It is in five very short movements, giving it, as the booklet notes (very well written and informative ones) comment, a suite-like feeling. One could call it ‘bitty’ if one was feeling unkind, and the level of invention seemed to me less than typical of the composer at his best. The third movement, a Foxtrot with oriental inflections, is the most attractive part.

The Poulenc is easily the best-known of the sonatas on the disc, and the most recorded, too. I enjoyed this performance, but my preference, if pressed, is for Emily Beynon’s more sharply characterised version on Hyperion. Khaner takes a very free approach, with lots of rubato, which is fine, but can, and does, break up the flow of the music. And a more serious problem emerges in the finale, Presto giocoso; in the main theme (track 16, first 8 seconds or so), the tempo is not maintained strictly, Khaner slowing down slightly but perceptibly for the tongued semiquavers. This happens at the later reprises of the tune, and is not to be recommended as an interpretative detail! On the credit side, Khaner’s command of the very high register, which much of this movement inhabits, is truly superb.

Pierre Sancan’s short single-movement work is a delight. Its equivocal opening reminded me a little of the Lennox Berkeley Sonatina, and later he makes attractive use of flutter-tonguing, though he resists the temptation to overdo it. The piano writing contains many delicious touches (earlier in his life, Sancan was a distinguished concerto soloist and chamber musician), and the interplay between the two instruments is complex and symbiotic. I suppose the idiom could be best described as ‘post-Ravelian’, but Sancan has his own distinctive voice.

A wonderfully controlled version of Debussy’s unaccompanied classic Syrinx – there is no more magical music for summer evening listening – completes this fine disc. It represents another splendid achievement for Khaner, Sung and the Avie team. Flautists everywhere will naturally rush to hear it, but it is full of great delights for the ‘general’ listener (whatever that might be!)

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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