Le temps retrouvé - The Sound of the Belle Époque:
To capture the musical mosaic of the Belle Époque on one CD (EMS-VI102) is almost an impossible task. But this selection of French pieces for flute and piano, of Debussy, Gaubert, Fauré and two of his pupils, Enescu and Koechlin, will hopefully lift the veil just enough to bring the artistic dynamic of a truly unique period back to life. Thanks to its natural sound and voluptuous timbre, the flute had a prominent role in the repertoire of the Belle Époque, the period between the end of the Franco-Prussian war (1871) and the onset of World War I. With this CD, Toon Fret, flute and Veronika Iltchenko, piano, rediscover a period long past, which still casts its musical shadows into our own times.
Though the Chansons de Bilitis were not conceived as a cycle for flute and piano, yet they turn out to be perfect for the flute, which reigns supreme in the scenery that Claude Debussy provided, a universe that is populated by characters moving in twilight between dream and reality. Philippe Gaubert also cut a good figure as a composer; his second place in the prestigious Prix de Rome attests to that. He can still charm us today with his elegant melodies, colourful harmonies and flashes of virtuosity. In his Deux esquisses Gaubert cannot cover up the influence of Fauré, but Ravel and Debussy too are never kept at a distance in these musical sketches. Gabriel Fauré had written an exam piece for the 1898 flute students of the Paris conservatory. To test them thoroughly, Fauré had opted for a combination of an expressive lyrical introduction in the form of a charming sicilienne, and a bright second movement peppered with virtuoso passages.
The tradition of having students at the conservatory play new pieces written especially for their exams was to yield more classic works, like George Enescu’s Cantabile et presto. This Romanian composer, whom Paris had embraced, wrote it in 1904, shortly after he had been made a member of the examination jury of the conservatory. This work too was to test the expressive and technical achievements of the candidates; hence the many pitfalls in the score, e.g. the articulation in the lower range of the flute in the Presto or the delicate and varied use of vibrato in the melody of the Cantabile.
Fauré’s Fantaisie was commissioned shortly after he had been appointed professor of composition at the conservatory. Because he wanted at all costs not to fall short of expectations, he concentrated exclusively on his directorship and set aside all other commissions he was working on. He entrusted completion of the orchestration of his incidental music for Pelléas et Mélisande, the London production of Maeterlinck’s masterpiece, to a student of his composition class, Charles Koechlin. The sound of the flute clearly reminded Koechlin of classical antiquity. His Sonata, Opus 52 (1911–1913), was inspired by Virgil’s Eclogues, from which he also took the exquisite antique mottos of the work’s various movements. The Sonata, which the composer himself described as a collection of ‘impressions méditerranéennes’, is his most ambitious work for flute. But the pianist, too, has his work cut out for him with the piano’s expressiveness, technical challenges, and colourful registers, so much so that Koechlin had to note down his ideas on three staves and even briefly considered rewriting the piano part as a full orchestral score.
The works for piano on this recording again are taken from Debussy’s oeuvre, which are often interpreted within the aesthetics of impressionism. Although this vision oversimplifies the relations between art and artistic trends, Debussy’s music does sometimes seem to offer an auditory pendant to impressionist visual art with subtle nuances of light and colour, its capturing of momentary impressions and its lack of clearly defined contours. He wrote in 1888–1891, Deux arabesques, which features quite a few elements that were to characterise many of his later piano works. He juggles parallel chords and winding motives in the accompaniments, and he concentrates on tone colour, atmosphere and suggestiveness rather than on thematic development. Was this not impressionism, after all?