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Jean-Michel DAMASE (1928-2013) Scherzo for flute and piano (1957) [4:07]
Trio for flute, oboe and piano (1962) [19:37]
Quatuor for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano (1992) [16:00]
Variations for flute and piano (1985) [11:02]
Duettino for flute and piano (2003) [2:34] Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Suite for solo flute (1962) [12:15]
Divertimento for flute and chamber orchestra (1974) [10:32]
Ransom Wilson (flute) Jean-Michel Damase (piano); Jacques Tys (oboe); Arnaud Leroy (clarinet)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
rec. October 2010, Eglise Pierre Nicole, Paris (Damase) and March 1974, CBS 30th Street Studios NYC. NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6304 [76:08]
Ransom Wilson has been at or near the top of the flute tree since the 1970s. That said, aside from his famous recording of Steve Reich’s fiendishly difficult Vermont Counterpoint I don’t remember coming across his name much on records, so it’s nice to hear him in this attractive programme of good-natured French chamber music.
The recordings of Jean-Michel Damase’s works is rather special in that, with the composer at the piano, we are allowed to witness Wilson’s friendship with the composer in some beautifully big-hearted music-making. Damase’s fingers are less nimble than they would have been earlier in his life, but even with the occasional splash you can still heart a formidable technique at work, and the musicality of all involved is irrepressible. Wit and joie de vivre are strong elements in all of these pieces, and I defy anyone to hear the Allegro con spirito second movement from the Trio without it raising a smile. The distinctiveness in voice between oboe and flute gives this work bright sonorities and a feel of jovial conversation between friends. The piano serves as the attentive bartender whose skill in juggling glasses and mixing harmonic cocktails keeps everything moving along superbly. While emotional depth is less significant here the final Moderato is quite intense, giving way to a slightly more relaxed but still densely interwoven Andante.
The Variations sound great fun to play, but with plenty of virtuosity demanded this is also by no means music for slouches. The Quatuor was composed for Ransom Wilson, and “exemplifies Damase’s instinct for exquisite instrumental writing” in its melodic exchanges and harmonic verve. The heart of this piece is in the atmospheric nostalgia of the third movement, though even here Damase doesn’t relax into straightforwardness. His idiom is filled with constantly restless harmonic shifts which disorientate even as we are getting our teeth into his eloquent themes. Several years separate the pieces for flute and piano, but the most recent Duettino shares the lively and entertaining nature of the others.
Jean Françaix was also to become a good friend of Ransom Wilson, and would still have been around when these two pieces were recorded in 1974. They first appeared on the Musical Heritage Society label as MHS 3286 and while there is a gently analogue feel to the recordings they are as pretty much as clean as you could wish for and in that sense only mildly inferior to the Damase works. Maximum peak level in the final Marche of the Suite for solo flute is a pretty destructive but momentary blip which takes nothing away from a fine performance. This Suite is a sequence of dance movements, exploiting the wide range and different character of the higher and lower sonorities of the flute to give it an almost polyphonic sense of conversational counterpoint.
There is a little bit of tape print-through in the recording of the Divertimento and the stereo image is a bit vague, but this again is a fine performance of a lovely piece of music. The Divertimento was originally written for flute and piano and was dedicated to Jean-Pierre Rampal; the chamber orchestra arrangement heard here a commission by Ransom Wilson. Françaix’s music is always easy on the ears, though on this showing has a more reflective and poetic quality than that by Damase. There are some lovely effects in the penultimate Romanza, the fourth of five movements which, as with Damase, are as unmistakably French as a baguette or a string of onions draped over a bicycle.
This release brings together two brilliant musical minds, a remarkable soloist and a crowd of colleagues who palpably have an equal affection for and sense of collaborative delight in the creative artistry ingrained into this music. This CD does represent the bringing together of two worlds in the disparate recorded sources on offer, but there is certainly no artistic struggle between Damase and Françaix and a great deal of enjoyment to be had from both.