Though he was born in 1881, almost twenty years after Debussy, twelve years after Roussel and six after Ravel, and composed until 1976 (when his blindness forced him to stop), reaching the modest age of 103 years-old, Paul Le Flem is 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 (stylistically) generation of Roussel and the Groupe des Six on the other (to say nothing of Varèse, Le Flem's younger by a mere two years, and parsecs apart in compositional outlook, but nonetheless his longlasting friend). This disc conveniently pairs the two masterpieces of Le Flem's early chamber music - and arguably two masterpieces of French early 20th Century chamber music, period, especially the Piano Quintet. The sonata dates from 1905 and the Quintet from 1909 (the notes are not very clear on the latter). Under their apparent rhapsodic and sometimes rambling aspect (the Quintet's first movement is over 17-minute long) they are tightly constructed, in their formal architecture as well as key progression. For instance, a same motive runs through the three movements of the sonata, its various transformations giving its different character to each. The musical language is post-Fauré (e.g. the more passionate Fauré of the second piano quartet and piano quintets) rather than post Franck, to early Debussy (the composer of the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra and of "The Blessed Damsel" - but the numerous counter-melodies carried by the viola in the Quintet's first movement irresistibly bring to mind Debussy's late Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp) or Ravel (the composer of the String Quartet), to which Le Flem brings his own sweeping lyricism and knack for the long and soaring melodic line. His well of ideas seems inextinguishable, and the Quintet's finale, whimsical and rhythmically complex, with a recurring limping 7/8 rhythm which years later would become one of Bartok's trademarks, goes further than the impressionist model. The finale of the Sonata has those same irregular rhythms, alternating between 5/4 and 7/4. Le Flem also makes some use of folk tunes from Brittany, as in the Quintet's Finale (2:30), and occasionally more daring effects, as the harmonics at 3:30 in that same Finale. Those who enjoy the chamber music of Franck and Fauré, but also the arch late-romanticism and exuberant youthfulness of works like Strauss' Violin and Piano Sonata, and of course the music of all those "minor" French composers born late in the 19th century (Dukas, Vierne, Tournemire, Koechlin can be added to the list above) should enjoy this music.
Alain Jacquon and Louvigny Quartet (comprised of soloists from the Luxemburg Philharmonic Orchestra) play the Quintet with marginally more passion (and more rhythmic bite and muscularity in the finale), less "end-of-century" languidity and tenderness than the members of the Centre National de Musique de Chambre d'Aquitaine, on an earlier version published in 1986 by the small French label Cybelia (Quintette Pour Quatuor A Cordes Et Piano). But the sonic perspective is more present but less atmospheric and somewhat more aggressive at times, and in the first movement some of the counter-melodies played by cello and viola aren't allowed to stand out enough. Ultimately, both versions are fine. On the other hand, the Violin and Piano Sonata (played by the Quartet's first fiddler, Philippe Koch) is better played by the Quartet's first fiddler, Philippe Koch, than by Annick Roussin and Marie-Catherine Girod, on a competing version recorded in 1992 by Accord (Paul Le Flem: Works for Piano/Works for Piano and Violin or Le Flem-Oeuvres Pour Piano-Sonate Pour Piano et VI [Import]). The more recent release is also better recorded, with a more natural sonic perspective, and the coupling with the Quintet is more coherent than with the piano works as on Accord. So this is the one to get, unless you are specifically interested in Le Flem's piano music.