20th Century “Jewels” Featured on New CD

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EARLY 20th CENTURY JEWELS / DEBUSSY: Sonata for Flute, Viola & Harp. ROUSSEL: Trio for Flute, Viola & Cello. HUYBRECHTS: Sonatine for Flute & Viola. SCHULHOFF: Concertino for Flute/Piccolo, Viola & Double Bass / Nozomi Kanda, fl/pic; Daniel Rubenstein, vla; Ingrid Procureur, harp; Didier Poskin, cel; Koenraad Hofman, bs / Dux 1340

Here is one of those albums that could only exist in today’s wide-open recording field, and not in the days when the Big Corporate Conglomerates ran everything: a clutch of little-known but superb musicians playing a group of mostly French chamber music of the early 20th century, of which only the Debussy Sonata is familiar to many concertgoers.

I have two other recordings of the Debussy piece, including an equally superb reading by members of the Nash Ensemble on a Virgin Classics CD that, though recorded many years ago, has since become a classic. The things that strike you about this recording are its warmth and superb clarity of sound: the three instruments are miked in perfect equipoise, which particularly helps the harp to be heard much more forward in the soundspace. Flautist Kanda, violist Rubenstein and harpist Procureur have exactly the combination of relaxation and forward momentum to make the piece work.

Roussel’s Trio is much more rhythmic in nature and not quite as concerned with impressionist feelings or opaque textures. It lies somewhere between the old French tradition of the early 20th century and, say Françaix or Poulenc from the later generation. As in the performance of the Debussy, I was particularly struck by the warm sound as well as by the way these musicians match their styles and approaches to create a unified approach. There are no superegos here trying to outdo one another, but genuine musicians who evidently enjoy playing with one another. Every note and phrase is imbued with life and feeling; even the more technical passages are not used for showing off technique but rather for displaying their well-thought-out interplay. Thanks to the exceptional clarity of sound, every nuance and note is as clear as if you were sitting in the midst of them while they were playing, yet the sounds of bow on strings, though discernible, is never so clear that it is irritating.

I was particularly impressed by the unusual yet cogent music of Alert Huybrechts, who died at the age of 39 in 1938. This almost sounds like Baroque music filtered through the mind of a Stravinsky-ite, using motor rhythms in a much more energetic way than even Roussel. Moreover, he seemed able to write disparate lines for the two instruments that sometimes ran counter to each other without sounding disjointed or just done for cheap effect.

Schulhoff’s very strange-sounding Concertino for Flute/Piccolo, Viola & Double Bass, though composed in the 1920s (1925), is not one of his ragtime-influenced pieces of the sort that made him famous in the early 2000s. It is, however, typically adventurous, in this case not just harmonically (note the edgy extended chords he used) but also in the way he spreads those chords out among the three instruments. The bass often plays chorded passages underneath the other two instruments, and the viola often plays chorded as well, which gives an unusually rich sound to the music. Occasionally both viola and bass play atonal lines in unison, two octaves or so apart, as counter figures to the flute’s (or, in the second and fourth movement, piccolo’s) top line. This is the only music on the CD that is not rooted in French impressionism but more closely related to the German-Hungarian aesthetic of the period. I’ve mentioned on several occasions how interesting and innovative a composer Schulhoff was, despite my personal distaste for his Communist politics, and this is certainly on display here. The second movement, marked “Furiant,” is an odd bitonal sort of scherzo with the piccolo cheerfully chirping on high while the viola and bass grumble on down below, sometimes echoing the piccolo’s phrases but more often going on their own way. In my view this is the newly-discovered gem of the set, even finer than the Huybrechts piece. In the last movement the three instruments often bounce off each other like ping-pong balls in counterpoint.

All of the musicians on this recording play extremely well, not just in and of themselves but in terms of understanding their roles in the ensemble passages. A great album, well worth exploring.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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