There are many natural resonances between this new album, Revolution, and its predecessor, The Flute King, which celebrated the first golden age of the flute, inspired by the tricentenary of Frederick the Great in 2012. Revolution is devoted to another such high point in the history of the instrument – the years surrounding the French Revolution. The flute of Devienne echoes that of Quantz in Frederick’s day, the music of Mozart’s age that of Bach’s, instead of the monarchy we have revolution, instead of the German school, a French one, and a generation born in the Classical era has succeeded one born in the Baroque, although the two are linked by the Enlightenment and the search for a better world, free from the yoke of earlier generations: a revolutionary ideal.
François Devienne, one of the most striking figures of the Revolutionary period, plays a key role in this new project. A talented composer, as well as a virtuoso flautist and bassoonist, he was so highly thought of that he was nicknamed the ‘French Mozart’. He also helped establish the Paris Conservatoire, and with it a flute school of lasting renown. These considerable achievements are matched by the high quality of the music he wrote for flute, ranging from duets and trios for flutes alone, sonatas with basso continuo or harpsichord and chamber works with woodwind or strings, to concertos and symphonies concertantes, not to mention some of the earliest post-Baroque transcriptions. Finally, his name is closely associated with the Concert Spirituel, the Parisian concert series that played a crucial role in promoting pure instrumental music in a city then in thrall to ballet and opera. Mozart himself was drawn to the French capital in no small part because of the status of the Concert Spirituel. Although a sinfonia concertante for winds missed out on being performed there, his ‘Paris’ Symphony did receive its public premiere at one of these concerts, just a few short years before Devienne’s own debut at the Concert Spirituel, where a number of his contemporaries also appeared, notably other teachers at the Conservatoire.
In planning this album, the flute concerto as a way of taking listeners on a journey through a period of 30 or so years, centred around the notorious storming of the Bastille in 1789. The works featured here bear witness to what was in fact a relatively rapid transition from the style of Gluck, a man of opera and of the Baroque – and whose concerto represents pre-Revolutionary Paris – and the revolutionary and Romantic ideal such as we understand it, sometimes hinted at, sometimes fully embraced. It can be heard, for example, in the inventive and lyrical musical universe of Gianella, a virtuoso flautist who came from La Scala in Milan to try his hand in the new world represented by Paris. Of Austrian origin, the much better-known Pleyel was an extremely gifted musician and pupil of Haydn who owed his survival to the skilful way in which he convinced the Revolutionary authorities that he had left his former royalist connections behind. Having moved to Strasbourg in 1785, it was only after the Terror that he came to Paris, where he did much to promote instrumental music by founding first a publishing house and then the Pleyel piano factory. With both Classical and dramatic elements, his Flute Concerto is particularly well developed and makes formidable virtuosic demands on the performer.
As for Devienne, his E minor Concerto is a standard of the concert and competition repertoire, a work which continually pushes the flautist to the technical limit. It has a dramatic intensity that can be heard in the very first bars of the orchestral introduction, and an eloquent musical discourse that creates superb contrasts in the dialogue between soloist and orchestra.
There is a great deal more music from this period worthy of revival, and we faced a difficult choice, faced with some extraordinarily varied works for ensemble and others for orchestra, notably an exceptionally rich vein of symphonies concertantes. Ultimately, however, the album around these striking concertos, and was lucky enough to find in Giovanni Antonini and the Kammerorchester Basel a group of colleagues to perform this music with spirit and an appropriately revolutionary combative fervour! A quick light-hearted digression into semantics: one of the main meanings of the word ‘revolution’ is ‘going round in circles’ … in other words, you end up where you started, although permanently transformed by the experience – in my case, a musical experience.
The ensemble Les Vents Français is aimed at continuing the tradition of the Devienne school, and at bringing about a kind of new revolution, following the examples of Paul Taffanel in the late 19th century, and Jean-Pierre Rampal in the post-war period. It was Rampal too who, throughout his career, rediscovered and recorded many of the works that symbolise late 18th-century Paris, including those featured here. In a way, therefore, this celebration of a golden age is my tribute to the French flute school, in repertoire that I studied at the Conservatoire and whose return to the spotlight is more than overdue.