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French Music for Wind Quintet
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)

Sextet for piano and wind quintet (1940) [18:40]
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)

Trois pieces brèves (1930) [6:57]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)

La cheminée du roi René (1939) [12:49]
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)

Wind Quintet no.1 (1948) [20:27]
The Wind Quintet of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR; Ralf Gothóni (piano)
Recorded in Studio 1, Radio House, Copenhagen, 3rd and 4th January, and 5th, 6th, 7th and 9th March 2001
NAXOS 8.557356 [58:53]


French composers always seem to have had a special affinity for woodwind instruments, whether in the context of orchestral or solo and chamber music. Collected on this disc are four particularly delectable examples, all by important 20th century figures. If you are tempted to think that a whole disc of such music might be heavy going, put that out of your mind – this is gorgeous stuff, and there is enough variety to avoid any chance of monotony. All four composers represented have strongly individual personalities and styles, and the presence of the piano in the Poulenc provides contrasting sounds and textures.

That said, I found the performance of the Poulenc the least impressive on this disc, carefully prepared though it is. There is a balance problem, in that the horn playing of Henning Due Hansen seems to come from some way away, and this detracts badly from the instrument’s many delicious moments. I sympathise, as balance is a perennial difficulty of this piece, in live performances as much as in the recording studio.

Things are far better in the wind-only works. Ibert’s exquisite short pieces are played with wit and style, with a particularly expressive duet for flute and clarinet in the middle movement. The same qualities persist into Milhaud’s masterly neo-classical (or more strictly neo-renaissance) suite La cheminée du roi René, evoking the golden era of King René of Provence, who reigned there during the 15th century. Though externally simple, there is a lot more to this music than is at first apparent, and the Danish players characterise the sequence of short movements sharply. Typically piquant is the fourth movement, La Maousinglade; this is a well-nigh untranslatable Provençal word – the nearest thing in English is probably ‘higgledy-piggledy’ – which refers to the part of Aix-en-Provence where Milhaud was brought up. Gently repetitive, swinging rhythms give rise to a succession of melodies in upper woodwind; music of great charm, and captured well by this ensemble.

But for me, the prize item on the disc is the wonderful Wind Quintet no.1 by Jean Françaix. Though of a more recent generation than the other three composers, he inherited from Les Six - of which group Poulenc and Milhaud were leading members - a dry humour, a neo-classical outlook and an entertaining unpredictability. As in the Milhaud, it is easy to underestimate this music because of its surface charm. But I would urge you to listen carefully and repeatedly, for, though not perhaps profound, this is a most cunningly and intricately wrought piece. As so often with Françaix, there is a gossamer, dream-like quality to the music, with elements of the circus too. At the very end, an unaccompanied horn solo outlines a sequence of notes that seems to lie behind much of the earlier music; a pause, then just a little gurgle like water disappearing down the plug-hole, and the piece is over. Wonderful, and a conclusion that surely would have appealed greatly to Poulenc, who loved just this kind of throw-away ending.

A fine disc then, and an immensely entertaining one. And if the Wind Quintet of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra don’t always achieve that authentic Gallic flavour, well who can honestly blame them; after all, they’re not French!

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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