An entire CD of mostly French flute fantasies by mostly obscure composers? The hesitant purchaser might like to know, first, that Mattieu Dufour, Principal Flutist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is a sensationally fine performer; second, that his accompanist, Chicagoan Kuang-Hao Huang, is a pianist of unusual distinction; and finally, that the six pieces on the CD, which are not so obscure to flutists and lovers of their music, are entertaining and varied, and at times richly musical and exciting. Excellent sound from Cedille is an important bonus.
The disc opens with three "original" fantasies, all written specifically for the Concours, a competitive examination of the Paris Conservatory of Music. These are followed by three fantasies on themes by other composers. First is the shortest piece, by the one broadly known composer, Gabriel Fauré, whose 5-minute Fantaisie of 1898 is in two contrasting sections, slower and faster. More precisely, the opening Andantino is a flowing Sicilienne — no dragging along here — and the Allegro is quite a virtuoso piece in calling for very rapid but steadily paced ripples of notes from both instruments. The work is sometimes heard in an orchestral version, but on the CD Dufour and Huang blend their sounds so beautifully, in terms of timbre and rhythmic precision, that anything more than a piano accompaniment would surely be a diminishment.
Phillippe Gaubert's 1920 Fantaisie is likewise in two contrasting sections, but the first is more languid and free in rhythm than Fauré's — more truly fantasia-like, and more impressionistic in its tonal palette as well — while the fast section is more of a showy display piece than the older composer's Allegro. Gaubert, still well known to flutists if not to the general public, was an important figure in French musical life, as described in some detail in Andrea Lamoreaux's extensive and helpful program booklet: he was artistic director of the Paris Opera as well as a teacher, scholar and flute virtuoso. Georges Hüe's 1913 Fantasie is even more fantasia-like in its free form and constant shifts in rhythm and mood — though it too ultimately divides into slower and faster halves. In both these fantasies Dufour offers the gorgeous tone and rhythmic subtlety that the works demand.
The fantasies on other composers' themes begin with (Albert) Franz Doppler's 12-minute Fantasie pastorale hongroise. No dates of composition are provided by Cedille/Lamoreaux for this and the pieces to follow, but I can say that Doppler, born in Lemberg (today's Lviv in Ukraine), was a famed flute virtuoso of the mid-19th century himself, based in Budapest, where he wrote several operas and numerous works for flute. (But probably his most-performed works are his orchestrations of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies.) His fantasy on Hungarian folk tunes leans toward more wistful or melancholy Magyar or Gypsy choices rather than more fiery tunes, befitting the "pastoral" in the title.
Paul Taffanel's fantasy on themes from Der Freischütz starts out stormily, but soon settles on the lovely, gentle melodies sung in the opera by the heroine, Agathe, though with fleet variations on the tunes for more variety of mood. A sprightly final section, based on an aria by Agathe's bouncier sidekick Ännchen, brings the piece to a satisfying conclusion. Taffanel, the teacher of Gaubert and supervisor of the Concours in its earlier years, writes an unsurprisingly effective showpiece for the flute but does provide some dramatic licks for the pianist as well.
Finally, François Borne's Fantaisie brillante on themes from Carmen serves to display the artistry of both Dufour and Huang at its best. The Habanera section alone calls for the utmost in lyricism and melting tone in the statement of the melody, and for the utmost in virtuosity in the cascading variations on the tune. Huang provides a solid foundation for the flutist's displays but also gets to launch into a number of the melodies himself.
Every nuance of Dufour's rich sound is clearly audible, thanks to Cedille's engineers, and balance between the soloist and accompanist is ideal, including in those moments when the accompanist takes the lead.