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Sepia & Amaranth
Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Voyage au “Pays de Tendre” [12:11]
Variations libres et Finale, Op.51 [10:40]
Leo SMIT (1900-1943)
Trio [12:11]
Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962)
Suite, Op.6 [10:53]
Joseph JONGEN (1873-1953)
Deux pièces en Trio, Op.80 [14:46]
Ensemble Lumaka
rec. 2017, Doopsgezinde Kerk, Haarlem, The Netherlands
ETCETERA KTC1600 [60:46]

What is it that makes the combination of flute and harp sound so quintessentially French, even when it is not written by French composers? Of course, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries Paris bred a number of outstanding flautists and harpists, and it was for one of these, in particular, that much of the music on this disc was written.

From the fluttering harp and the flute’s graceful float upwards at the start of Pierné’s Voyage au “Pays du Tendre” it is obvious that this music is French, despite the additional presence of a string trio. This somewhat unusual scoring was occasioned by the fact that it was commissioned (as was the Variations libres et Finale which closes the disc) by the flautist René le Roy for his Quintette Instrumentale de Paris. If the sound world is quintessentially French, the inspiration for the work is quintessentially Parisian. During the 17th century, a feature of social life in the city was the literary coteries which met to discuss concerns of the day. One of these, presided over by a certain Madeleine de Scudéry, concerned itself with the correct manner in which women should approach love, and drew up a Map of Tenderness which was used to stimulate debates on such matters as Affection, Esteem and Gratitude. Roderick Sharpe has written at length on Pierné’s decision to use this as the basis for this quintet, composed in 1935, suggesting that “it is not surprising that Pierné, whose professional life had been hectic (he frequently conducted 48 different programmes in a season), should be attracted to the refined and leisured world of the seventeenth century where wit, restraint, and delicacy were so highly prized”. Writing in the booklet notes, Jana Machalett (the Lumaka Ensemble’s flautist) suggests the work is “almost a parody of the emotions and dangers experienced by those in love”. But above all, this performance exudes gracefulness, charm, a certain nostalgia and utter contentment.

Written a year before the Voyage, Pierné’s Variations libres et Finale is an altogether more atmospheric work, opening with a somewhat desolate theme and generally focusing more on the string trio with flute and harp adding touches of exotic colour. Violinist Saskia Viersen suggests that among the variations are “a Basque-style dance, rocking melodies and an Animato in dance rhythm that is filled with strange scales”. Once again we have a lovingly tended performance from Ensemble Lumaka, who capture precisely the right sense of restrained virtuosity in the glorious finale with its sumptuously luminous ending.

None of the other works on the disc is French, although we come as close as makes no difference with the Belgian Joseph Jongen’s two pieces for flute, cello and harp composed in 1925 for René le Roy. Jongen’s typical quasi-impressionist, dreamlike language, with its expansive gestures and far-sighted melodic spans is beautifully brought to life here. Harpist Miriam Overlach and flautist Jana Machalett inject an extra dimension of nostalgia and dreaminess, and the way in which Charles Watt gushes fountain-like out of the texture for his extended cello solo in the “Allegro moderato” (2:31) is simply enchanting.

Ensemble Lumaka make much of their international credentials, pointing out that their harpist and flautist are German, their cellist British, their violinist Dutch, and their violist, Martina Forni, Italian. There is also an international line-up in the music, with a Trio for flute, viola and harp by Leo Smit, a Dutch Jew murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust in 1943, and a Suite for flute, violin and harp by Eugene Goossens whose father was a French-born Belgian, his mother English while he himself achieved eminence as a conductor in the USA and as an educator in Australia.

Smit’s Trio is stylistically quite different from the other pieces on the disc, with its hints of jazz and its “wrong note” harmonies; Forni suggests that there are two different characters in the music, one “is in sepia – it seems a bit dusty and has a faded charm…the other is in colour”. That is certainly how the music comes across in this very committed and absorbing performance, with the transformation at 7:49 bringing a warm and immensely comfortable glow, beautifully caught in this highly atmospheric recording.

Despite his multi-national credentials, when Goossens wrote his Suite in 1913, he had just left the Royal College of Music and was firmly entrenched in the English musical tradition. Yet its opening movement oozes French-ness from every pore just as did the opening of the Pierné Voyage; a kind of lazy, insouciance with shimmering, impressionistic passages (helped along by the violin in this trio of equals) and an overriding dreaminess. Saskia Viersen exquisitely handles the portamento effects to create what she describes as “an improvised daydream with Hollywood-style melodies”. There is surging passion in the second movement, underlined by a throbbing harp part, while a lovely moment where the theme drops from flute to violin and into the harp gives a real lift to a vivacious third movement dance, given here a robustly virile performance.

Marc Rochester


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