About this Recording
8.557328 - POULENC: Flute Sonata / MESSIAEN: Le Merle Noir / BOULEZ: Sonatine
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French Flute Music
Poulenc • Messiaen • Sancan • Jolivet • Dutilleux • Boulez

The transverse flute had early importance in French music, particularly after the technical changes in the instrument towards the end of the seventeenth century. It owes much of its relative prominence in French music of the twentieth century to the use made of it in orchestral colouring by composers such as Debussy and Ravel and to the existence of a group of highly gifted players associated in one way or another with the Paris Conservatoire.

Francis Poulenc was one of the group of young French musicians known in the 1920s as Les Six, influenced by the eccentric composer Erik Satie, and friends of Jean Cocteau. His Sonata for flute and piano, a relatively late work, was written between December 1956 and March 1957 in response to a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, and duly dedicated to the memory of Mrs Coolidge. The first performance was given at the Strasbourg Festival in June 1957 by the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal and the composer, and it was to become one of Poulenc’s most popular works. In January his opera Dialogues des Carmélites had had its successful première at La Scala in Milan, and he explained in a letter to his biographer Henry Hell that the writing in the sonata, simple but subtle, had harmony recalling the novice Sister Constance in the opera. The first movement, marked Allegro malinconico, brings contrasts of mood, with a principal theme of essential poignancy. The second movement, Cantilena, brings a moving melody, the harmony and texture of the piano writing deceptive in its apparent simplicity. The work ends with a rapid and cheerful Presto giocoso of similarly lucid clarity, its lively course briefly interrupted by a more pensive passage.

Olivier Messiaen is among the most influential figures in the music of the twentieth century. At first alarming and shocking audiences, he later won an unassailable position, respected at home in France and abroad for his achievement through a musical language that is intensely personal, emotional and informed by a deep Catholic piety. His musical idiom was derived from a number of sources, with an interest in bird-song that is directly evident in his Oiseaux exotiques (Exotic Birds) and Catalogue d’oiseaux (Catalogue of Birds) and indirectly elsewhere in his music, in which he developed a form of serialism that has been variously interpreted. Le merle noir (The Blackbird), for flute and piano, was written in 1951 as a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire. After the the sustained notes of the piano have died away, the flute plays a solo passage, its inspiration derived from the song of the bird. The piano enters with a phrase immediately echoed by the flute, extended and then returning after an episode recalling the opening. The same material provides the basis for the rapid final section.

Pierre Sancan was for nearly thirty years a professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire, while pursuing a highly successful career as a performer. A winner of the Prix de Rome in 1943, he has written a variety of music, including an opera, ballets, a string symphony, two piano concertos and other works. His Sonatine, written in 1946 as a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire, is dedicated to his colleague there, the distinguished flautist Gaston Crunelle. This is very much in the spirit of Debussy, with a flute melody over a gently accompanying piano texture that is to return in recapitulation after contrasting material. A short piano passage leads to a ternary-form Andante espressivo of melancholy lyricism. A flute cadenza is then followed by the final triplet rhythm movement, marked Animé, with its reminiscence of the opening of the work, before the flute resumes the rapid figuration of the last movement, bringing the sonatina to a brilliant conclusion.

A member, with Olivier Messiaen, Daniel Lesur and Yves Baudrier, of the group of French composers known as Jeune France, André Jolivet was a pupil of Le Flem and of Varèse. As director of music for the Comédie Française he wrote incidental music, and elsewhere showed a particular interest in the incantatory and magic element that he perceived as fundamental to human music. It was for this association that he favoured the flute, both in his orchestral works and in his chamber music. Chant de Linos, also dedicated to Gaston Crunelle, explains, in a superscription, that the Song of Linus was, in Greek antiquity, a kind of threnody, a funeral lament, a plaint interrupted by cries and dances. The opening section leads to a gentler lament, broken by wild cries before the threnody resumes. Another outburst leads to a dance-like section, moving to music of tamer mood, before the lament briefly returns, followed by a final passage recalling the cries and dance rhythms suggested by what has passed.

The Sonatine for flute and piano by Henri Dutilleux is, again, a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire, with a dedication once more to Gaston Crunelle. It was written in 1942, while the composer was director of singing at the Paris Opéra, before moving to French Radio. His individual musical language develops from the traditions of Debussy and Ravel, avoiding the programmatic, or dogmatic, and seeking always clarity of texture. In the sonatina the piano introduces the first melody, later taken up and extended by the flute, leading to a secondary melodic element. A cadenza-like passage moves on to an expressive and poignant Andante, after which there is a final movement, marked Animé and impelled forward by its motor rhythms, a celebration of the composer’s ‘joy of sound’, with another cadenza appearing before the work comes to an end.

Pierre Boulez has exercised great influence as a composer and as a conductor. In the latter capacity he is know principally for his early extension of serialism, under the influence of his teacher Messiaen, into a more comprehensive and logical system that, nevertheless, allows, in his hands, a certain freedom. His Sonatine for flute and piano was written in 1946 and first heard in public at a concert in Darmstadt ten years later. It was among his first published works, written at a time when he had received instruction in serialism from Schoenberg’s pupil Leibowitz, in the same year as his Piano Sonata No. 1 (Naxos 8.553353). Written with a meticulous and very French attention to sonorities and textures, the work makes use of melodic cells, groups of notes that return and have a melodic function in what the composer later described as ‘organised delirium’.

Keith Anderson

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