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Philippe GAUBERT (1879-1941)
Vol. 1 Complete chamber music with Flute

Madrigal (fl, pf) (1908) **
Trois aquarelles (fl, vc, pf) (1915) - Par un clair matin; Soir d'automne; Serenade****
Divertissement grec (2 fl, harp) (1908) +*
Soir païen (voice, fl, pf) (1908) ***
Tarantelle (fl, ob, pf) (1903) +***
Piece romantique (fl, vc, pf) (1926) ****
Medailles antiques (fl, vn, pf) (1916) - Nymphes a la fontaine; Danses +#
Suite (fl, pf) (1921) - Invocation (Danse des pretresses); Berceuse orientale; Barcarolle; Scherzo-valse **
Fenwick Smith and Jacques Zoon, fl., Sally Pinkas, pf., Jayne West, sop., Andrew Pearce, vc., Ann Hobson Pilot, hp., John Ferrillo, ob., Malcolm Lowe, vn.
Rec. ***December 17, 2001; ****February 3, 2002; #February 4, 2002; **January 26, 2003; Joel Gordon; Sonic Temple, Roslindale, Massachusetts; *August 16, 2001; Tim Martyn; Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, Massachusetts + premiere recording
NAXOS 8.557305 [61.10]

This is pleasing, pleasant music of graceful charm and infectious innocence, instantly enveloping the listener in a sensuous, romantic, loveable and loving world. Gaubert's style encompasses a wide emotional range, and the harmonic deviations are worthy of Franck and Ravel, his more obvious models.

This programme, well ordered on this attractively arranged disc, is performed with outstanding flute tone - a rich vibrato in the lower register with an ideal intensity where required, even more impressive in the magically light, delicate upper register in softer dynamics: exquisite playing of exquisite music. The piano playing matches and integrates to perfection (although the pedalling action is occasionally too closely recorded and the bass at times booms a little). Frequently the flute playing reminds one of some of the finest singing, with refined starts and ends to phrases displaying a complete range of dynamics from absolutely nothing to full and down again with no compromise in quality or attack - simply some of the finest flute playing I've heard.

In the opening Madrigal, probably the most well-known of these pieces, we hear ideal technical control in a truly involved performance: instantly setting a style and standard for the rest of the disc. The other work presented here for just flute and piano is the concluding four-movement Suite, featuring the influence of Fauré (Dolly Suite?) in the Barcarolle, and the Paris Exhibition which brought exotic Far Eastern and Slavic influences to French composition, in this case noticeably in the whole-tone laden Berceuse orientale which owes not a little to Debussy. The priestesses of the first movement might well heed the reverential approach of this finely delivered Invocation, and the work and disc are superbly concluded with a virtuosic but tasteful and delicate account of the Scherzo-valse featuring admirable clarity in double-tonguing and all manner of articulation, with nimble fingering from both players: the quasi-Spanish cross-rhythms are delivered with sparkling freshness.

Fenwick Smith's colleagues are equally accomplished and distinguished. In the Three Aquarelles, the cellist produces a lighter and less richly sonorous tone than a full-bodied soloist, but this suits the music and the ensemble colour just so. There is an easy, natural fluency to the arabesque writing, and the ensemble's rubato never sounds contrived but always judged instinctively and idiomatically: the music is created for the listener by the flexible and sensitive interaction of this accomplished, alert group. Especially in the Soir d'automne we are treated to russet-toned cello phrases and the browning piano chordings, consistently well-matched in colour and always balanced sensitively at all dynamic levels. The final Serenade has an occasional slavonic hint in the brisk melodic ornamentations (the sleeve-note suggests Middle Eastern?). These players combine again in the Piece romantique, whose rich harmonic chords remind one at times of Faure (Elegie), Saint-Saens (The Swan), and even Messiaen (Quartet). The cello is never masked by the piano, thanks partly to sensible writing and mostly to sensitive playing: there is a particularly effective passage where the low cello doubles the equally deep piano, and several places where all the instruments explore register contrasts to maximum effect, yet retain clarity and cohesion through alert responses.

Taking second flute to the principal flute of the Boston SO, who plays on a wooden Parisian flute of almost 100 years' age, Smith also adopts a wooden instrument; their perfectly matched tones over the accompanying harp make for a refreshing and distinctive exploration of the expressive use of human breath. Some of the intakes are quite audible but the speed with which the sound is re-established makes one wonder at times if there was actually any gap in the melodic line, so disguised are these moments within the expressive contours. Hugely impressive technique, perfectly matched in style.

Equally at home in this style are the floating soprano, equally adept at subtle yet adventurous variation of vibrato to musical purpose, and the oboist in the Tarantelle, a work reminiscent of Saint-Saens' similar piece also for two winds and piano: skittish, typical of the genre, with a slower middle tune almost destined to be labelled salon-style, but for the refreshing turns of phrases at the last moment and the effectively unexpected harmonic underlay.

The violinist features fluently in the Medailles antiques, a rather different style starting with almost pointillist writing of melodic snatches, evocatively imaging splashing water, and, later, the sensuous nymphs are "captured" in lyrical lines of languour and fine-spun gossamer. The last few seconds of this movement are disturbingly mysterious, almost menacing, but link perfectly to the slightly hispanic Danses with their earthy vigour and exotic swish.

I cannot imagine more satisfying performances of these convincing miniature delights: refined chamber playing which retains a fresh spontaneity, yet observes the printed details and expressive nuances accurately and whole-heartedly. This is some of the most enjoyable flute playing you could hear - artistry of a high order, thoroughly skilful in technique, and imaginative in use of this superb resource to produce melting moments and strong passages of quite opposite character and colour. I must get disc 2!

Colin Touchin


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