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Format: Audio CD
Although Marco Polo indicates it nowhere (other than from the discrepancy between the 1987 recording dates and the 1994 copyright), three of these recordings - those conducted by James Lockhart - first originated as a CD from the small French label Cybelia, CY 866, Le Flem: Pour les morts / 7 pieces enfantines / Symphonie No. 4. Only the music for the film "Le Grand Jardinier de France" (The Great Gardener of France), conducted by Gilles Nopre, was recorded in 1993 and added to Marco Polo's reissue, for a TT of 63 minutes. No complaint, of course.
Paul Le Flem defined himself as a Breton composer rather than a French one, and he shared with Albert Roussel a passion for the sea, although his was a frustrated one, since he was not accepted at the Naval School due to his poor eyesight. His late death in 1984 (but his blindness forced him to cease composing in 1976) might make you disregard the fact that Le Flem lived to the venerable age of 103 and that his year of birth - 1881 - places him halfway between Roussel (1869-1937) and Florent Schmitt (1870-1954) on the one hand, and the Ibert-Honegger-Milhaud trilogy (1890-1962, 1892-1955 and 1892-1974) on the other. He was Ravel's younger by only 6 years (1875-1937), but also Varèse's contemporary (1883-1965) - he always remained a very close friend of the latter, despite their huge stylistic differences. If you want to pigeonhole Le Flem stylistically, better think of Ibert than Varèse. Le Flem's allegiances were with his teachers at the Schola Cantorum Vincent d'Indy and Roussel, rather than the more conservative ones of the Conservatoire, Charles-Marie Widor and Albert Lavignac, and his music is steeped in the early 20th century style of Debussy-Ravel-Roussel. I've already reviewed two CDs of Le Flem's early piano and chamber music, othe piano music (Le Flem-Oeuvres Pour Piano-Sonate Pour Piano et VI) colorful and evocative, somewhere between Debussy and Albeniz, and the chamber music (Quintet Piano & Strings / Sonata Violin & Piano) written in a musical language that is post-Fauré (e.g. the more passionate Fauré of the second piano quartet and piano quintets) to early Debussy (the composer of the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra and of "The Blessed Damsel"). In these reviews, I've described Le Flem as "one of those minor figures of the French music scene who, like Ropartz, Cras, Pierné, Magnard, Schmitt and to some extent D'Indy, stylistically never quite found their place between Franck, Saint-Saens and Fauré on one side and Debussy-Ravel and the younger generation of Roussel and the Groupe des Six on the other (to say nothing of Varèse)". It is true with the earlier orchestral pieces gathered on this disc - the tone poem "Pour les morts" (For the dead) from 1912 (orchestrated in 1920), the Sept Pièces enfantines (Seven Children's Pieces), first originated in 1912 as a piano cycle and orchestrated apparently in 1942 (the liner notes don't tell you that but there is a fine online website devoted to Le Flem maintained by michel.lemeu), and Le Grand jardinier de France, composed for a documentary by Jean Tedesco on Le Nôtre, the gardener of Louis 14, in 1942.
"Pour les morts", is a 10-minute, brooding and consoling dirge, quite atmospheric, bringing to mind the gloomiest atmospheres of Debussy's Pelleas & Melisande (the scene in the vaults of the castle - Pelleas had been a revelation for the young Le Flem in 1902) or the more appeased and mysterious moments of Roussel's Bacchus & Ariadne, Koechlin's Jungle Book or the tone poems of Arnold Bax. The music takes on a more consolatory outlook at 5:00 when emerges a tender, lullaby-like theme played by the French horn. Le Flem had lost his own mother at 4 and his father at 12 (another similarity with Roussel, who had been an orphan at 7), and two of his own children had died in infancy. Sept pieces enfantines are more lightweight in mood, alternately tender and playful, Ravel's Ma Mère L'Oye without the unique color, melodic and harmonic invention. The poetic and atmospheric invention of the 6th piece, The Chapel (track 7), rises above that, though.
Only 17 instruments are used in Le Grand Jardinier de France (customary winds but one a part, timpani and strings) but it sounds much more lush than that. The style alternates between romantic, Poulenc-like elegant and Roussel-like lush and muscular impressionist, with occasional use of 17th century imitations, sometimes regal and solemn, sometimes more galant and balletic, sometimes more playful. Ibert's ballet music for Diane de Poitiers, which I happen to have just listened to, comes to mind (IBERT: Diane de Poitiers / La Licorne). The music for "Le Jardinier" often rises above the occasional and trite, although not consistently so, and never letting you forget that this is France, film music, 1940s, pretend you don't know anything about what's going on in the world around you.
But the Fourth Symphony, a product of the composer's late years (1975), shows that Le Flem didn't remain entirely impervious to the stylistic changes going on around him (in 1964 he even composed an atonal Concertstück for Violin and Orchestra). The Symphony is much more angular, muscular, rhythmically dynamic and brassy than his impressionism-inspired early works, bringing to mind the more muscular Roussel of the 3rd and 4th Symphonies, or (in its whimsicality of mood) Koechlin. Typically Le Flem uses in its instrumentation the saxophone, to great effect (with nice coloristic touches from the glockenspiel also). The sombre slow movement recalls "Pour les morts".
The Le Flem website indicates that the scores to the the Pièces enfantines and 4th symphony (as the 2nd) are unpublished, in view of which it seems incredible that they even could have been recorded: bear in mind that it implies copying, probably by hand all the parts from the master score.
Amateurs of Ibert, Koechlin, Honegger, you should find much appeal in this disc. It's been reissued by Naxos on their "Patrimoine" collection, but it doesn't seem listed here. You will find it on the European sister companies under ASIN B00004UYO6.