Philippe HUREL (b. 1955)
Phonus: Phonus ou la voix du Faune (2004) [21:18] ; Figures libres (2001) [15:43] ; Quatre Variations (2000) [19:42]
Benoît Fromanger (flute), Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Christian Eggen; Ensemble Court-Circuit/Pierre-André Valade; Matthew Ward (percussion); Argento Chambert Ensemble/Michel Galante
rec. 15 October 2004, Oslo Concert Hall; 3 May 2005, Cité de la musique, Paris; 8-9 September 2005, Studio Systems 2, Brooklyn, New York City. DDD

The flute concerto Phonus was commissioned for the Ultima Festival in Oslo, and this recording is the live recording of the premiere. An atmospheric opening introduces Hurel’s spectral style of harmonic writing, with some interesting evolving textures. The soloist is surrounded by the sound of the orchestra. An extended cadenza follows, which makes use of numerous contemporary techniques and is an impressive virtuoso display. Flute player Benoît Fromanger plays with the utmost technical control and delivers an exciting and communicative performance. A second cadenza, which also uses the orchestra’s flute section, is also highly engaging and forms one of the work’s highlights. The composition’s subtitle, La voix du Faune makes reference to the influence of Debussy’s famous orchestral prelude, with its celebrated opening flute solo, on which Hurel bases his material. Hurel’s work has a sense of challenge about it, in terms of its technical demands for the soloist. It gives a fascinating modern perspective on Debussy’s music, which permeates this work at every level. There is a sense of risk-taking in the performance, providing an appealing sense of drama, and the playing is always highly convincing, from both the soloist and the orchestra.

Figures libres, for eight players, was written in 2001 and commissioned by Ensemble Recherche. The opening possesses a Stravinskian rhythmic drive, with cells used as the basis of the work until the players gain freedom, one by one. Virtuosity once again pervades the music, and combinations of contrapuntal and monophonic material give variety to the textures. With three distinct sections, the music builds in momentum before a sudden change of mood. The central section is slower and less frenetic, with canons emerging between the parts. The final section regains the energy of the opening, with repeated cells once again featuring, and strongly defined rhythmic patterns maintaining the music’s momentum. Ensemble Court-Circuit give a virtuosic and impressive performance.

The final work on the disc is Quatre Variations for percussion and chamber orchestra. The variations of the title refer to structural and musical parameters rather than a theme as such; for example, changes are made to interval, rhythms and tempi. The solo vibraphone gives a wonderful sense of colour, which is balanced well with Hurel’s imaginative orchestration. Despite the complex structural elements which underlie this work, there is a sense of wit and a lightness of touch which is highly appealing. Gentle jazz influences can be detected, especially in the solo line, and tributes to Grisey and Messiaen also form part of the music’s material.

Hurel’s music is intelligently constructed and has a sense of unity between all its aspects: orchestration, melody, harmony and structure. There is a strong sense of character in his music and it has much to offer on multiple hearings. The ensembles here are excellent and provide performances of a high quality. The soloists, Benoît Fromanger and Matthew Ward, are both dazzling and play with impressive virtuosity and musicianship.

Carla Rees