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Chant dans la nuit: Flute Music in the Belle Époque
Filippo Mazzoli (flute) Nathalie Dang (piano)
rec. 2019, Ascoli Piceno, Italy DYNAMIC CDS7862 [64:36]
'Perfumed' is a naff word that we music critics lazily bring out to sum up anything that is pretty, tuneful and written in the late 19th century. Of the thirteen composers sampled here only two are familiar: the young female prodigy, Lili Boulanger and Eduard Lalo, best known for his Symphonie Espagnole. This is the era of salon music, a genre that would die out a generation later with the advent of distractions like cinema, recording and a new wave of composers less keen on the idea of light music. As a survey this new album is expansive, generously timed and contains no less than seven recording premières.
We open with the title track Chant dans La Nuit, by forgotten viola player and composer, Albert Seitz. Slow, sensual and increasingly rapt and intense, it takes its inspiration like so much French music of this era, from ancient Greek literature with their copious depictions of the flute or pipe. The sensual harmonies and insistent drip drip accompaniment of Lili Boulanger's Nocturne take salon music on a more sophisticated path. Despite its obvious beauty this is not light music, with its riffs on Après midi d'un faune taking us down a far more sophisticated path. In fact Debussy's post Wagnerian harmonies flit in and out of this collection of deceptively simple salon music. The 'Butterfly Chase' by Leon Fontbonne is a delightful dance-like duet of flutters and soaring lines. Far removed from Saint-Saëns' virtuosic depiction of a butterfly crowd in Carnival of the Animals this is a sensuous duet.
Getting its first recording, Louis Masson's Trois Pièces provides an upbeat, virtuosic respite from the dreaminess elsewhere. His writing is less showy and better promotes the pianist from being mere underlay. As further contrast, Lalo gets us an arrangement of the Introduction & Allegro from his ballet Namouna, a Corfu set tale of exotic slave girls and playboys. Lalo spun out a few works from this little known ballet and the Introduction & Allegro is suitably exotic in harmony and romantic melody, like so much of the 'tourist' music popular in France at this time.
Xavier Leroux's Le Nil, also recorded here for the first time, is a similar miniature of intertwining melody and eroticism. This is outdone by Philippe Gaubert's Orientale, again very typical of the period, shamelessly exotic in harmonies and chromaticism, further indulging in the oriental craze that also inspired the likes of Saint-Saëns, Massenet and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Apart from Lalo, all the composers picked here crossed over from the 19th to 20th century with the majority experiencing two world wars. The sense of eras ending is palpable and it is this more innocent era of charm, melody and innocence that is at stake. If that sounds too much of a downer the programme ends with Paul Taffanel's Fantasie on Francesca da Rimini a blast of tarantella rhythm that melts into a delightful romance before skitting off to its joyous conclusion.
I defend this period of light music and although many such albums are too much in one sitting, like chewing a bowl of pot-pourri, this album from Dynamic is cannily programmed to contrast the sensual and slow with the more playful and dancelike. The flute is dominant in the sound balance but not distractingly so and the sound has the right amount of air around it. The performances are impeccable too, brisk and bright but keenly aware of rubato and the general sense of expressive freedom these pieces need. I cannot fault the presentation either which succinctly gives context and data to each obscure composer and their piece. It is fascinating era of French music, on the cusp of recording and a new generation of trouble makers in music. The sound world is a fading world of velvet, bourgeois comfort. Already there are traces of the new music and harmonies that would close down this period of domestic music. Plush, decadent miniatures and all shamelessly beautiful.
Albert SEITZ (1872-1937)
1. Chant dans la nuit, Op. 14 (Arr. for Flute & Violin) [5:31]