Month: July 2021

  • Belle Epoque Flute Works


    Paris: La Belle Epoque
    Robert Langevin, flute. Margaret Kampmeier, piano.
    Bridge Records 9555
    Total Time:  77:17
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Robert Langevin, the Canadian-born acclaimed flautist has put together an extensive recital exploring solo works from the French Belle Epoque.  The album includes both some familiar repertoire and, certainly, familiar composers though admittedly a couple are quite unexpected and welcome surprises.  The era is one that is filled with some of the greatest of French Music.  It has the arrival of French Romantic style, the blend of Wagnerisms that would provide one thread into Impressionist style with the addition of church modes and global scales adding another potential for musical exploration.  These realities are what often makes the music stand out from its more familiar Germanic counterparts and there is always a sense of wit and joy that comes through even when the deepest emotional moments are explored.  Langevin is joined here by pianist Margaret Kampmeier who proves to be a good match.

    The album begins with a rather unique work by Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) known most for his organ music.  The Suite, Op. 34 (1877) is a large-scale work in four movements with the “Scherzo” providing apt virtuosic displays and the “Romance” allowing for some quite beautiful lyric playing.  The outer movements help frame these in faster-paced music.  Supposedly, Widor was encouraged to orchestrate the work by flutist George Barrere but never got around to it which is unfortunate as no doubt it would have been a more popular orchestral solo staple.  Still, it is a delightful piece and makes for an apt start to the exploration of music from the era with its closer leanings to romantic style, but with interesting modern twists.

    Lesser known is Jules Mouquet (1867-1946) a more conservative composer from the era (he even wrote a couple of oratorios) who wrote a number of instrumental works.  La flute de Pan, Op. 15 (1904) is essentially a programmatic sonata with each movement inspired by an ancient Greek text.  The piece moves from a playfulness to interesting birdsong imitations and romance all culminating in a virtuosic final movement.

    Perhaps a bit more widely known, Gabriel Faure’s (1879-1941) work blends an equally conservative approach but with an often restrained beauty that adds to its appeal.  Two of his more familiar works are part of this program.  First is the 1898 Fantaisie, Op. 79 which Faure wrote as a competition piece that was intended to focus on more than just technical skills.  There are still plenty of those challenges in the work which would be used for the Paris Conservatoire’s flute competitions on later occasions.  For the sight-reading portion, Faure also wrote the Morceau de concerts which is in the more reflective end of his work offering more introspection and opportunity to demonstrate phrasing and lyricism.  These works are the bookends for several other solo works that were written for Conservatoire.  Georges Enesco’s (1881-1955) Cantabile et presto was one of 4 pieces he would write for that purpose.  Written in 1904, the work shows some of the increase in more impressionistic qualities in its opening segment while shifting to virtuosic displays for its concluding presto.  Philippe Gaubert (1879-1943) was a noted flautist in his own write but also a fine composer as well.  Three of his pieces are included in this program.  First is the competition piece Nocturne et allegro scherzando (1906) which provides a fine contrast to Enesco’s work both in terms of approach and overall style.  The Fantasie (1912) has a sort of rhapsodic quality with and musical imagery that was not originally a competition work but would be used as such on occasion.  Finally, there is the Madrigal of 1908 which equally demonstrates the flirtation with ancient musics and an early mix of modernism and neo-classical qualities.

    The album would be quite complete with just these works but Langevin has also included 2 familiar pieces by Debussy (1862-1918) to wrap up this recital.  First is an arrangement of the Prelude to the Afternoon of A Faun by Gustave Samazeuilh (1877-1967).  This version is from 1925 made by this champion of Debussy’s music (he did a number of piano reductions and transcriptions by hundreds of contemporary larger-scale works).  It is rather fascinating to hear how the orchestral colors are transferred to the piano especially.  The album concludes with a little encore of sorts in Syrinx (1913) where we already begin to hear the shifts away from this Impressionist style as a sort of last flirtation before more fully embracing modernism.

    While this is a recent Bridge release, the recording was made back in 2012.  One has to wonder why it took this long to see the light of day but at least it has and those who appreciate flute music will certainly have a lot to dive into in this release of significant works for flute.  They demonstrate Langevin’s own virtuoso skill and lyrical abilities on the instrument and that makes this equally attractive.  Balance feels fine though the sound seems a bit dry at times which does not give the flute sound a chance to float a bit more in quiet passages, but it does aid the rapid passage work and articulation pop well.  An overall excellent album that allows for a good blend of somewhat familiar work with rarer recorded repertoire adding to its attraction.

  • New Songs, Old Texts: Three Different Takes

    The art song has had a long history of composer's exploring texts that allow for a more intimate setting and personal interpretation through a composer's personal aesthetic and style.  Here we are going to take a quick snapshot look at three more recent releases each with a unique collection of song cycles and art songs.

    Carl Vollrath studied with Ernst Dohnanyi and Carlisle Floyd and it is the latter whose music his work seems to be a natural extension of with a dash of the elan and color of the former.  The three cycles on Old & New Poetry (Navona 6342) explore the poetry of William Blake in five rather intense and emotional pieces.  The lyrical vocal lines (sung so beautifully by mezzo-soprano Aliana de la Guardia) are equally matched by a piano line that helps add emotional interpretation.  "Love Songs" is a collection of 7 brief poems by Sara Teasdale set for soprano, clarinet and piano.  The songs provide some intriguing interplay for the solo clarinet line that increases often the intensity of the poetry.  "Child, Child" is perhaps one of the stronger of the songs here with some gorgeous writing that is quite moving.  The music's more modern sound also aids in heightening the drama.  Finally, the poetry of John Gracen Brown inform the final Variations in Verse-Rural Poems.  The themes of the poetry help provide a common link here that relate to Vollrath's interest in nature and interdependency on it.  It too has unique accompaniment with an added saxophone.  Some of these work better than others, but as a whole they are quite captivating.  The almost bluesy-like harmonies Vollrath flirts with provide an accessible entry point for a rather moving collection of texts.

    On a rather unusual coincidence, composer Eloise Hynes Stowe is a noted soprano from Arkansas (and performed the lead in Floyd's Susannah).  Psalms: Sacred Songs by Eloise Hynes Stowe (Navona 6354) is a quite gorgeous collection of modern sacred music that somewhat sits between what one might hear as "special worship music" (if you had a fine soprano like Stella Roden at your disposable) and more concert-like music.  The style has one foot firmly in a grand romantic style and modern song (think more Albert Malote's setting of The Lord's Prayer).  There are eight psalms set here which provide a good amount of material for Stowe to explore her lyric gifts.  The melodic ideas are quite engaging and catch the ear as the music then moves the listener into a more operatic style and experience.  But the music itself is very moving with occasional flute or violin adding some additional color.  Three classic hymn texts are given some new life with new music to classic texts that provide some fresh approaches to hear these lines with a bit more emotional context.  The album closes with 5 Solomonic odes.  The romantic richness of the piano and solo instruments add to some stirring music that provides some far more interesting listening and some new ways for music to enhance worship.  It would even be interesting to see how some of these could be adapted into choral settings which would further increase options for performance.  A very engaging album with some quite beautiful music makes this worth tracking down.

    Known more for his operatic work, composer Evan Mack is represented by a collection of songs on Ravello Records The Travelled Road (Ravello 8051).  The album is bookended by single movement settings for mezzo-soprano and cello which lend them a slighty more operatic feel.  A Little More Perfect opens with a text quote from Hon. Justice Anthony Kennedy and focuses on the issue of marriage and LGBTQ rights.  The final song, The Road and the End, is based on poetry of Carl Sandburg and serves as a fine summary of reflection on the many ways we must move to address some of the issues explored in the texts here.  Three Reflections of Sister Dorothy focuses on the work of the nun who worked for sustainability and rainforest preservation with texts chosen by Mack.  It is an interesting, and dramatic, statement on her life and struggles.  From breaking down barriers of understanding of ecological impact, the album shifts to a cycle called Preach Sister, Preach.  Each of the 14 songs features the words of a specific woman (actresses, authors, comediennes) and the barriers they broke with nods to the period.  This lends the music a more Broadway-like artistic feel with its inclusion of popular music references in rhythms and harmonic play.  Finally, The Secret Ocean, features texts by Mark Jarman that address the links between childhood and parenthood.  This serves as an interesting reflective set with the music moving from rich extended harmonies into more dissonant clusters within a more jazz style.  Soloist Megan Marino performs these pieces with a great sense of play (especially the various Preach songs) with also fine examples of beautiful lyricism.  An overall engaging program of modern song writing.

    Each of these releases provides different musical takes on the modern art song with music that moves from accessible modernism to more romantic and musical theater-like sensibilities.  All have a focus on important thematic connections that can be made across their respective albums.