Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941)
Siciliennne pour flûte et piano (1914)
Fantaisie pour flûte et piano (1912)
Médailles antiques pour flûte, violin et piano (1916)
Madrigal pour flûte et piano (1916)
Deux Esquisses pour flûte et piano (1914)
Trois Aquarelles pour flûte, violoncelle et piano (1915)
Ballade pour flûte et piano (1926)
Tarantelle pour flûte, hautbois et piano (1913)
Nocturne et Allegro scherzando pour flûte et piano (1906)
Nolwenn Bargin (flute)
Maki Wiederkehr (piano)
Ensemble Chant du Vent
rec. 2021, Stadthaus, Wintertur, Switzerland.
CLAVES 50-3059 
From at least the Eighteenth Century, in the person of such figures as Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764) and Michel Blavet (1700-1768) there has been a strong French tradition of music for the flute. In the first half of the Twentieth Century the two leading figures – both as heirs and as influences – were Paul Taffanel (1844-1908) and Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941); both men were top-class players and teachers of the flute; each also wrote a substantial body of fine music for the instrument. The older man taught the younger.
Gaubert was born at Cahors in southern France, moving to Paris with his parents at the age of six. His father was a cobbler, while his mother worked as a housekeeper. His mother sometimes cleaned the apartment of Paul Taffanel. Taffanel met – and liked – her son. The young Philippe enjoyed hearing Taffanel play the flute and Taffanel offered to teach him to play the instrument. Indeed, he became a lifelong mentor of Gaubert, who entered the Paris Conservatoire (aged 13) in 1893, the year in which Taffanel became the Professor of Flute at the Conservatoire.
Gaubert went on to win the Conservatoire’s first prize for flute in 1894. His skills as a composer were also developing, so much so that in 1905 he gained second prize in the Prix de Rome. With the onset of the First World War, Gaubert suspended his musical studies and career, to serve as a stretcher-bearer on the battlefield; indeed, in 1921 he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in recognition of his bravery in that role. Before that, he had resumed his musical career, accepting three major appointments in 1919 – as chief conductor of the Société des Concerts, succeeding André Messager; he also took up Taffanel’s old position as Professor of Flute at the Conservatoire and accepted the position of principal conductor at the Paris Opéra (where he had been a member of the orchestra since 1897). He thus occupied a central role in the musical life of the French capital. The workload involved must have been enormous. He gave many fewer concerts as a flautist, and his productivity as a composer unsurprisingly declined.
Gaubert’s reputation as a composer is principally dependent on the works he wrote for the flute, several of the most interesting of these being recorded on the current disc. (He also wrote some songs and works for violin and piano, cello and piano and bassoon and piano, as well as two operas and some ballet music.) It is surprising to find, however, that he seems never to have written a concerto for his own instrument, though he wrote three flute sonatas (No.1 in 1904, revised in 1917, No.2 in 1924 and No.3 in 1933). There are attractive recordings of all three sonatas by flautist Susan Milan and pianist Ian Brown, along with Gaubert’s shorter works for flute and piano on a 2-CD set issued by Chandos (CHAN 8981). I am inclined to prefer these new versions where comparisons can be made. The sound quality is a little better and in the playing of Bargin and Wiederkehr there is more of that indefinable French manner.
Neither in his sonatas nor in the ‘character’ pieces on this new recording is Gaubert’s idiom or sense of form especially original. Yet even so, a distinctive quality emerges, assured but not complacent and always graceful. The influence of both Fauré and Debussy is evident, though not in the form of slavish imitation. All of the music here is thoroughly informed by the composer’s supreme understanding of the flute and the techniques of playing it. Gaubert’s melodies are often enticingly attractive and the ‘vocal’ quality often audible in his flute lines must surely owe something to the many years he spent playing in, and then conducting, the orchestra of the Paris Opéra, frequently behind some of the great singers of the era.
For me, particular highlights on this thoroughly enjoyable disc include the ‘Deux Esquisses’ – of which the individual titles are ‘Sur la plaine’ and ‘Orientale’ (each is less than four minutes in length, ‘sketches’ indeed). The first is in a basic ternary form, prefaced by a brief introduction (in which I hear distinct echoes of L’Aprés Midi d’un Faune), and closed by a short coda. ‘Orientale’ is a rondo which goes beyond conventional Western harmonies and scales, in the process achieving a rich and distinctive beauty. Both pieces are poetically evocative. Or perhaps I should say ‘pictorially’ evocative, since Gaubert’s use of the term ‘esquisses’, like Debussy’s use of ‘images’, inescapably suggests affinities with the visual arts. In common usage we might use the adjective ‘sketchy’ to describe a piece of work which is unsatisfactorily incomplete or careless. But if we think, as I believe we should, in terms of the visual arts, a ‘sketch’ can be either a work made in preparation for a painting or, a work undertaken without any reference to any more ‘complete’ version of itself, concerned with immediacy of impression and a sense of the spontaneous – so, for example, many of Constable’s late ‘sketches’ have a power and aesthetic value every bit as great as many of his ‘finished’ paintings. I think a similar case might be made, mutatis mutandis, for these sketches by Philippe Gaubert.
Other worlds, not oriental but ‘ancient’ are also realised evocatively in the two ‘Medailles antiques’ (‘Nymphes à la fontaine’; ‘Danses’) and the ‘Divertissement grec’. These are exquisite quasi-classical idylls, full of charm. In ‘Nymphes à la fontaine’ (a variant from of the rondo: ABABCA) the violin and the flute ‘are’ the nymphs, while the piano articulates the movements of the fountain’s water. The sense of the dance pervades both these ‘medailles’, as it does the ‘Divertissement’. In these neo-classical idylls Gaubert’s music has an exquisitely chaste beauty, though with some sensuous sounds in the flute part.
Dance rhythms often bring out the best in Gaubert, as in ‘Sicilienne’ and ‘Tarantelle’. Originally scored for orchestra, the ‘Sicilienne’, like many of Gaubert’s miniatures, is in straightforward ternary form and has both dignity and grace, with some striking passages in semi-quavers. The ‘Tarantelle’ was the composer’s first published composition and carries a dedication to Taffanel; its interwoven lines for oboe and flute are handled with considerable skill (it was written when the composer was in his early twenties).
Only occasionally (as in the ‘Fantaisie’) does Gaubert demand virtuosity of his interpreters. His love is for the sound of the flute, rather than for flamboyance. Nolwenn Bargin plays with consummate certainty of technique and great sensitivity throughout this rewarding and enjoyable album, while pianist Maki Wiederkehr is a sympathetic accompanist who displays excellent judgement. On some tracks, their work is supplemented by the contributions of various members of the Ensemble Chant du Vent: by the violin of Olivier Blache, the cello of Flurin Cuonz, the oboe of Maria Sournatcheva, the harp of Julie Palloc and the flute of Héléna Macherel. All concerned acquit themselves admirably.
In The Musical Times (August 1932, p.748) Gilbert Chase included Gaubert in a list of “the most serious French composers” of the time, coupling his name with those of Roussel, Widor, Ibert and Schmitt. I suspect that nowadays Gaubert is less well-known, save to flautists, than any of the other four composers listed by Chase. While I do not wish to make extravagant claims for Gaubert’s importance, it does seem to me that he is unduly neglected at present.
It would be remiss of me if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that in increasing my own familiarity with Gaubert and his music, I have found Penelope Fletcher’s Doctoral Dissertation, Philippe Gaubert: His Life and Contribution as Flutist, Editor, Teacher, Conductor, and Composer (University of Maryland, 1982) full of valuable insights and information.
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Héléna Macherel (flute), Maria Sournatcheva (oboe), Olivier Blache (violin), Flurin Cuonz (cello), Julie Palloc (harp)