This massive undertaking –and make no mistake, a three-CD set of nothing but piano-accompanied flute playing is a massive undertaking in today’s market, where flash and ephemera masquerade as art – is simply a mind-boggling act of selfless dedication from the Philharmonia Orchestra’s principal flutist since 1983, Kenneth Smith. I’ve been familiar with Paul Taffanel’s gorgeous wind quintet (recorded in the early 1960’s by the New York Wind Ensemble, among others), but until receiving this set for review I had no idea that he was to the flute what Kreisler was to the violin or Cortot to the piano, a pioneer who took his instrument out of the realm of merely flashy virtuoso showpieces and made it a warm, expressive instrument, worthy of the very finest music one could write for it. And write they did, not only fellow-flautist Georges Barrère or noted composers, such as Reinecke, Saint-Saëns, Durand, Mouquet, Grandval, but even the organist Charles-Marie Widor. They all recognized Taffenel as a musical genius, not only a great technician, but a highly expressive player who exalted his instrument.
One reason I consider this project to be not only massive but daring is that, unless your name is Jean-Pierre Rampal or James Galway, your chances of getting three full CDs of your playing issued nowadays are slim and none (and, as they say, slim just left town). Comparisons may be odious (though I, for one, don’t subscribe to that theory), but the fact remains that unless one is a very serious student of the flute one is unlikely to have heard of Smith or be willing to spend money on a set like this in order to hear a great deal of obscure flute works accompanied by a piano for nearly four hours.
But, by golly, Smith keeps you hooked through the whole set. His tone is warm and ingratiating, his technique deceptively flawless (he doesn’t dazzle you except in two or three pieces, but he’s so good that you never notice all the hard work that went into it), and his style thoroughly apropos for the era. As he himself says, he approached these works in the spirit of late 19 th –century musicianship, which at that time meant a great deal of rubato or, as Smith puts it, “performances that could seem rather indulgent to current musical taste.”But he s true to his vision, so much so that his performance of the long flute solo in Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits can be favorably compared to that of the legendary John Amans in his 1929 recordings of the piece with the New York Philharmonic.
As can be imagined, none of these works are harmonically advanced – Debussy was still a young composer when Taffanel wound down his career in the early 1890s – and there are a lot of Romances and Nocturnes here, but none of the music is trash by any definition. These are very well-written pieces, tonal and romantic to be sure, but not in any way embarrassing to their composers. Taffanel’s own transcription of highlights from Weber’s Le Freyschütz compares favorably with Sarasate’s Carmen fantasy, certainly not an inconsequential piece in itself, and in the longer works (Doyen’s Poèmes Grecs, Grandval’s suite, and the sonatas by Reinecke and Widor), there is real imagination at work. The music here covers the entire range of the instrument, from top to bottom, but again, it does not do so in a flashy or superficial manner.
Smith is, quite simply, a superb flutist, and I sincerely hope that this set brings him some solo-concert recognition. Even though he has recorded the Mozart flute with the Philharmonia, Vivaldi concerti with the London Musici, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 with Maurice André and the Philharmonia, he’s certainly not a household name. Perhaps this set will help . Accompanist Paul Rhodes should not by any means be slighted for his contribution to this set. His consistently lively yet warm playing is the perfect partner for Smith’s flute. With a lesser pianist, there is no way that Smith, or the music, makes as strong of an impression. You may not want to listen to all three CDs, as I did when reviewing, in one sitting, but I guarantee that you’ll want to hear “what comes next”. It’s that kind of set.