MUCZYNSKI: Flute Sonata. MARTINU Flute Sonata No. 1. POULENC Flute Sonata. W. GIESEKING Flute Sonatine. L. BOULANGER Nocturne. HOOVER Kokopeli. RAVEL Pièce en forme de Habañera

TRIBUTE • Don Bailey (fl); Donald Sulzen (pn) • GENUIN 04040 (66:22)

MUCZYNSKI Flute Sonata. MARTINU Flute Sonata No. 1. POULENC Flute Sonata. W. GIESEKING Flute Sonatine. L. BOULANGER Nocturne. HOOVER Kokopeli. RAVEL Pièce en forme de Habañera

This is another of those CDs—one more recital of 20th-century chamber music played by unfamiliar performers—that seems destined to be overlooked by most listeners, aside from the friends, family, and students of the performers. Yet, as is not infrequently the case, the disc is pretty much a delight from beginning to end. Although the program may seem at first glance like a miscellaneous grab-bag, on closer inspection it reveals a sensibility unified by a Gallic notion of refinement supported by real musical substance. And this Gallic sensibility is discernable as well among the three composers who happen not to be French. The performances, despite a few qualifications, are largely impressive, enjoyable, and satisfying. Don Bailey, born in Mississippi and educated in Texas, is active as a soloist, and boasts a brilliant technique and a bristling sense of excitement. Donald Sulzen, who hails from Kansas City, is an adept and vigorous accompanist whose career is largely located in Germany, where this recording was made. My chief criticism of their performances is that some of the pieces are played so fast that the rhythmic pulse of the music is deprived of an all-important sense of tensile elasticity. 

Most of the individual pieces are familiar enough to require little comment. The 1961 Flute Sonata by American composer Robert Muczynski is a masterpiece of concision, its four vigorous, substantive, and compelling movements lasting barely 12 minutes. The performance is excellent: highly-charged and exciting, although the energetic first movement is one of those moments when a sense of “swing” is sacrificed to a breakneck tempo. Martinu’s Flute Sonata No. 1 is not among the best of his works of this kind, but it is pleasant nonetheless. The duo is especially effective in rendering the almost mechanical quality of some of its figurations, but pianist Sulzen is a little stiff in capturing the rhythmic lilt of the composer’s distinctive syncopations. The Poulenc Sonata is probably the most familiar piece on the program, played brilliantly here, although I find the third movement again a bit too fast. The Sonatine, composed in 1935 by Walter Gieseking, is my first encounter with the compositional talents of the celebrated pianist. Comparable in duration to the three works just discussed, it is of considerably less aesthetic weight than any of them. A listener hearing the work without knowing its source might be reminded of Ravel in his least ambitious moments. Yet despite musical material that evokes with cautious gentility the popular music of its time, the work unfolds gracefully and with attention to developmental values.

The program is leavened by three works of lesser dimensions, each of which is performed beautifully: Ravel’s often-heard Pièce en forme de Habañera, Lili Boulanger’s pretty Nocturne, originally composed for violin and piano, but arranged for flute by James Galway, and Katherine Hoover’s unaccompanied Kokopeli. The latter piece, though composed only 15 years ago, is already appearing frequently on flute recitals. It is an evocative soliloquy conceived around the concept of a mysterious flute-playing Hopi god.

Despite my specific reservations about certain details of the performances, I reiterate my earlier statement that as a whole the recording offers considerable pleasure; I am confident that listeners who enjoy flute music will find this to be a rewarding and enjoyable program.