Paul LE FLEM (1881-1984)
Complete Piano Works
Avril (1910) [6:20]
Vieux Calvaire (1910) [5:19]
Par Landes (1907) [5:11]
Par Grèves (1907) [9:11]
Le Chant des Genêts (1910) [11:10]
7 Pièces Enfantines (1911) [9:46]
Les Korrigans – Valse Bretonne (1896) [4:01]*
Pour La Main Droite (1961) [1:52]*
Éponine et Sabinius (arr.G.Koukl) (1897) [8:16]*
Pavane de Mademoiselle (Style Louis XIV) [2:19]*
Émotions (1939) [1:43]*
*World Première Recording
Giorgio Koukl (piano)
rec. 23 March, 2015 Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana, Lugano, Switzerland
GRAND PIANO GP695 [68:13]
It is a continuing source of amazement to me how many little known composers are ‘unearthed’ and whose music is introduced to a wider public; not just amazement but delight. The music of Paul Le Flem certainly ranks highly in this sphere. As can be seen from the asterisks, some of his piano music has been recorded before, but who knew? As a composer whose acknowledged influences were “my native Brittany, Debussy and D’Indy”, his music is full of refined elegance and poetic beauty. A onetime teacher of Erik Satie at the Schola Cantorum (despite Satie being his senior by 15 years), Le Flem had his compositional career interrupted by the First World War and did not take the profession up again seriously until 1937. His output includes stage works and a work for violin as well as four symphonies (though the booklet only mentions three).
Paul Le Flem’s incredibly long compositional life is emphasised on this disc by the dates of the earliest and latest completed works, spanning as they do from 1896 to 1961. His composing career only came to an end through blindness in 1976, eight years before his death at 103! What strikes me is the maturity demonstrated in the earliest works here and the consistency in quality and approach right through to his last ones, with the possible exception of the somewhat ‘experimental’ Pour La Main Droite. Avril, from 1910, is a ravishingly gorgeous piece in which his acknowledged musical debt to Debussy is perhaps at its most obvious and in which nature’s urge to create new life after the winter is graphically articulated. As the booklet notes point out, there is a Hispanic feel to it and it is a truly joyful piece.
No less wondrous is Le Flem’s Vieux Calvaire, also written in 1910 and subject to the same Debussyan influences, albeit much more introverted in expression. Its cascading notes at the beginning are lovely and its reflective and reverent nature reminded me a little of Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie.
From 1907 come his two pieces inspired by the Brittany of his childhood: Par landes and Par grèves. Both show in music how very attached he was to his native region emotionally and each shows a genuine love and admiration for Brittany’s uniqueness which comes through very strongly. How atmospheric it would be to walk the moors and stroll along Brittany’s beaches with this music in your ears while doing so. Par grèves is extraordinarily descriptive and will resonate with anyone who has been by the sea in that wonderfully rugged area and for me brought back memories of my first stay on the Presqu'île de Crozon. Le Flem’s ability to conjure up the behaviour of the sea in its various moods is as descriptive as Debussy’s La Mer and the piece demands a replay immediately.
Le Chant des genêts (The song of the broom plants) is a set of five contrasting pieces written for his son Maurice. It uses different elements of Breton folk tradition, from the opening evocation of Breton bagpipes, Entrée des binious, recalling for me a parade I watched in a small Breton town, to a brilliantly descriptive piece, Vers le soir, with echoes of folk dance leading to Autour d’un conte. This is a longer piece, more serious in nature and content with more complex rhythms. One can only guess at the tale of the title that unfolds over almost four minutes of very beautiful piano writing. Pour bercer is a delightful little lullaby and the set closes with an energetic Ronde (round dance).
Sept Pieces enfantines (seven children’s pieces) give a marvellous evocation of childhood, incorporating memories of games and folk customs as well as religious events. One can detect nostalgia for those carefree times as well as emotional overtones that we all experience. It ends with a spirited description of the Breton folk headdress, the bigouden, using traditional rhythms to do so.
The last six works on the disc are all world première recordings, for which we have the dogged research of pianist Giorgio Koukl to thank. The first, Les Korrigans is an early work from 1896. It shows how mature Le Flem’s style was even at the tender age of 15. It describes a magical creature from Breton folklore and its alternating loud and soft passages in waltz form are extremely effective. This is followed by Le Flem’s excursion into experimentation, his Pour la main droite. then the intriguingly entitled Melancholie! There is speculation about the use of the exclamation mark. Its date of composition is unknown, but given its quotation from La Marseillaise it is thought that there is a connection with the First World War. Le Flem may have met its dedicatee at the front. Whatever the explanation, it is another lovely piece. It is followed by the longer Éponine et Sabinius, a further early work from 1897. This has been arranged by Koukl and is described as a “symphonic poem”. It certainly has such a feel. Paul le Flem’s playful nature is shown to perfection in his Pavane de Mademoiselle (Style Louis XIV), with its cheeky little tune. Émotions, the final piece, was written as the soundtrack for a film entitled Sommes-nous défendus? It is a tune that one wishes had been treated to greater exploration since, there is much promise within it short span of under two minutes.
As an introduction to the music of Paul le Flem, this disc is of considerable importance. It begs the question as to why most music lovers will never have come across his name before, because the quality of the music is indisputable. The first reaction I experienced was how I could obtain his symphonies (the 1st is on the Timpani label, the 4th on Marco Polo as well as a dated sounding 1958 recording of his 2nd on YouTube) and anything else he wrote, such was the impression he made on me.
It is of no surprise that it is Giorgio Koukl who is the pianist here since he is a dedicated musical ‘archaeologist’ who ferrets out undeservedly neglected works by undeservedly overlooked composers. This was amply demonstrated in his recent recordings of Tcherepnin’s complete solo piano music, the eight discs of which I had the privilege of reviewing, as well as piano music by Tansman and, most recently, Arthur Lourié, the second disc of which I eagerly await. He is also a champion of Martinů and he has recorded his complete piano music and concertos as well as his songs with mezzo-soprano Jana Wallingerovà. His dogged research is fuelled by commitment to bring this music to the public. This often proves difficult and many others would not be as resolute in pursuing it, so music lovers have a great deal to thank him for. Add to this a wondrous lightness of touch which so perfectly suits such elegant music and you have a disc which is valuable on several levels. Core repertoire is of course highly important and fresh approaches to interpretation of all the familiar compositions is always welcome, but how refreshing it is to be introduced to someone as interesting yet almost totally unknown as Paul le Flem. I urge you to listen to this captivating music so brilliantly played.