Classical CD Reviews

“horizontal & vertical – music for flute and organ” = Works of POULENC, DEBUSSY, BEYER, MARTIN, ALAIN, GODARD, DONJON – Schaaff, flute/ Volke, organ – Motette

The Poulenc arrangement is questionable, but the Debussy has a special air of mystery, and the playing is fine indeed.

Published on November 3, 2013

“horizontal & vertical – music for flute and organ” = Works of POULENC, DEBUSSY, BEYER, MARTIN, ALAIN, GODARD, DONJON – Schaaff, flute/ Volke, organ – Motette

“horizontal & vertical – music for flute and organ” = POULENC: Sonata for flute and piano (arr. for flute and organ by Frank Volke); DEBUSSY: Bilitis (Six Épigraphes antiques) for flute and piano (arr. for flute and organ by Frank Volke); FRANK MICHAEL BEYER: Tiento for flute and organ; FRANK MARTIN: Sonata da Chiesa per Flauto e Organo; JEHAN ALAIN: Trois Mouvements for piano and flute (arr. for organ and flute by Marie-Claire Alain); BENJAMIN GODARD: Suite for flute and piano, Op. 116 (arr. for flute and organ by Frank Volke); JOHANNÈS DONJON: Offertoire for flute and organ, Op. 12 – Ulf-Dieter Schaaff, flute/ Frank Volke, organ – Motette 20361, 76:34 [Distr. by Albany]  (5/14/13) ***1/2:

Oftentimes, the art of arrangement seems to me an effort in futility or an act of carrying ice to the Eskimos. It does manage to expand the repertoire of the instrument or instruments for which the arrangement is made, though whether an arrangement will be widely heard, or if heard hailed, by the public is often questionable. In the case of organist Frank Volke’s arrangements of French classics for flute and piano, we’re told that in such music, the inner note sequences in the piano part often go unnoticed and are far more “clearly apparent when transcribed to an appropriate organ register. . . ,” countering the “monochrome” piano sound. I guess Volke should know, having studied piano as well as organ. But there is more to the issue than merely inner voices and coloration. There’s also the matter of the emotional character of the music, as well as other indefinables, that are altered in the course of arrangement.

The Poulenc piece, for instance, becomes a substantially different work in arrangement. Initially, some of that special Gallic coolness is preserved, but the more fulsome tones of the organ soon seem, for me, to heat things up substantially, and the result is a rather Romantic-sounding sonata. That’s especially true of the ripe treatment of the second movement; and some of the piquancy of the finale is lost in the more unwieldy sound of the organ, with its unavoidable delay.

Perhaps the same criticisms could be lodged in the case of the Debussy, but here I find the organ adds an air of the mysterious or even mystical that comports well with the idea of antiquity reflected in the title. The slowest pieces—No. 5, Pour l’Egyptienne, and No. 2, Pour un tombeau sans nom—work best in this regard.

I have no objections whatsoever in the case of Jehan Alain’s Trois Mouvements, originally scored for piano and flute, maybe because I know that the bulk of Alain’s music was written for his own instrument, the organ, and maybe because there’s special poignancy in the fact that Alain’s sister arranged this piece by a composer who died tragically and far too young.

Benjamin Godard’s musical confection Suite, Op. 116, probably makes as good an impression in Voke’s arrangement as in the original—maybe more so, since there is a carnival air to the piece, and the calliope-like oom-pahs of the organ convey it perfectly.

Despite the fact that Johannès Donjon’s work was written with a liturgical purpose in mind—to accompany the presentation of the offering during Mass—it’s just about as corny as Godard’s less pretentious Suite. I’m not sure that it adds a great deal to the musical mix, but it makes for a serviceable encore.

Frank Martin’s experiment in musical archaism, Sonata da Chiesa, originally written for viola d’amore and organ, fits well with Debussy’s bow to antiquity, but between these two works comes Frank Michael Beyer’s austere atonal composition entitled Tiento (1965). Tiento refers to a contrapuntal organ piece of the early Baroque, but there’s nothing consciously or unconsciously backward-looking in this uncompromising bit of musical modernism.

In short, if you’re looking for variety, you’ll certainly find it here, though the quality of the music is also variable. I’m most drawn to the Alain and Debussy works, which I find alluringly exotic sounding. In both cases, the lure of Eastern music is probably behind this sense of exoticism: both composers were bowled over by the playing of Asian musicians they heard at international expositions in Paris.

One thing is clear, however: Ulf-Dieter Schaaff is one fine flute player, with a pure, lovely tone and the seemingly effortless tone production that’s the hallmark of the consummate flutist. Even the Poulenc, available in dozens of other recordings, is interpretively right on the mark, a reading anyone could be happy with—at least as an addendum to a recording of Poulenc’s original scoring. Just by the nature of his instrument, Frank Volke’s accompaniment seems more self-effacing than most pianists’ accompaniments are, but his support is always tasteful, respectful of his partner. And in the Debussy, Volke’s performance is central, creating the air of mystery that makes this arrangement the most successful on the program. The resonant recording helps in this regard. It produces a fine sense of space without obscuring a single note, and the range of the organ is captured truthfully.

This is a program of peaks and valleys, then, but the playing and recording are undeniably fine.

—Lee Passarella

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