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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Francis POULENC (1899 - 1963)
Complete Chamber Music

Sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn (1932/1939)
Sonata for violin and piano (1943)
Sonata for two clarinets (1918)
Sonata for horn, trumpet and trombone (1922)
Sonata for cello and piano (1940/1948)
Sonata for clarinet and piano (1962)
Sarabande for solo guitar (1960)
Villanelle for piccolo (pipe) and piano (1934)
Sonata for oboe and piano (1962)
Elegie for horn and piano (1957)
Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon (1926)
Sonata for clarinet and bassoon (1922)
Sonata for flute and piano (1957)
The Nash Ensemble:-
Philippa Davies (flute/piccolo)
Gareth Hulse (oboe)
Richard Hosford (clarinet)
Michael Harris (clarinet)
Ursula Leveaux (bassoon)
Richard Watkins (horn)
John Wallace (trumpet)
David Purser (trombone)
Leo Phillips (violin)
Paul Watkins (cello)
Craig Ogden (guitar)
Ian Brown (piano)
Recorded 22, 23 December 1998, 11-13 January 1999, Henry Wood Hall, London
HYPERION CDA67255/6 [2CDs: 73.48+72.30]

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With the opening phrase of the Sextet we are plunged into the mad-cap world of Poulenc's 'Bal Masque'. A naturally short-breathed composer, his larger scale constructions tend to be hard won assemblages of short phrases. But here, there is no sign of the strain, the music tumbles over itself impetuously. And can there be a better performance than this one? These CDs were originally issued as part of the Poulenc centenary celebrations and they have remained a touchstone ever since. A key player in the Sextet is Ian Brown, the pianist. He plays in 9 of the 13 works on these discs. His playing admirably combines sparkle with the control necessary in playing this tricky music. All the players in the Sextet are beautifully balance, in fact all the playing on this CD is admirable.

For the opening movement of the Sonata for violin and piano, we are still in the same world as the Sextet. But for the slow movement, Poulenc provides a beautiful, long breathed melody. Wistful and elegiac in character, it becomes more understandable that this piece was dedicated to the memory of the Spanish poet, Lorca. In the opening movement, Poulenc has hinted at a Spanish atmosphere by his used of plucked textures on the Violin. The angry finale, presumably, echoes Poulenc's bitterness at the loss. The piano is rather the dominant partner in this partnership, perhaps understandable since the piano was Poulenc's own instrument. This situation re-occurs on other items on the disc like the Sonata for cello and piano.

The following work is the early Sonata for two clarinets. This was one of the composer's early experiments with atonality and polytonality. It is a curious work with echoes of Stravinsky. Richard Hosford and Michael Harris (clarinets) give it their best shot, but it does rather fail to convince.

The Sonata for horn, trumpet and trombone is another early work which is not entirely successful. The opening movements display a surprising echo of British brass band music though the later ones develop in a rather jokier manner. John Wallace's excellent trumpet gets the bulk of the melodic material.

The Sonata for cello and piano is one of the works over which Poulenc lingered longest. The cellist at the first performance, Pierre Fournier, was also joint dedicatee and he played a significant role in the writing of the cello part. But that said, the cello is usually reduced to decorating material provided by the piano. Despite its long gestation period this is a charming work and the performers (cellist and pianist) judge the balance nicely. It opens with a long aching melody on the cello and this movement is the most successful. Gradually, as the work develops, the cello often has to play accompanying passage work against the piano's melodic material. Paul Watkins (cello) plays this in a masterly manner, the material is tricky and neither virtuoso nor the main interest but he never distracts from the piano's melody line. In the last movement the grand gestures evaporate into a larky Poulenc tune. In many places the solo part includes effects and gestures which probably owe more to Pierre Fournier's desire to show off, than to Poulenc's vision for the piece. Needless to say Paul Watkins and Ian Brown manage these passages with brilliance and discretion. I could not help feeling that the sonata rather outstays its welcome and that Poulenc never became entirely comfortable with the cello part.

With the Sonata for clarinet and piano, one of a group of late wind sonatas, we move to one of Poulenc's masterpieces in the chamber music repertoire. This Sonata was written as a memorial for the composer's friend, Artur Honegger. Though it still mixes wistfulness, melancholy and playfulness this is altogether a more long breathed work than the early pre-war chamber music. It reflects the more sober aspects of Poulenc's musical development post 1938 and is exquisitely played by Richard Hosford. As in all the late wind sonatas, the balance between soloist and piano is now more secure, the clarinet having most of the melodic material in the sonata.

The little Sarabande for solo guitar was written in New York in 1960. Written for Ida Presti (who provided the fingering for the guitar part), it was eventually published in a guitar anthology along with pieces by Auric, Sauguet and other contemporaries. A charming little work, it is the most successful of Poulenc's chamber music without piano.

The tiny Villanelle for piccolo and piano was printed in a publication entitled 'Pipeaux 1934'. The brainchild of Australian Louise Dyer, she persuaded a number of Parisian composers of the time to write for similar combinations. Unlike the grander sonatas, this was the sort of trifle that Poulenc could dash off quickly.

The Sonata for Oboe and Piano, another of the late wind sonatas, was written as a memorial for Prokofiev. The opening movement displays a vein of mellow wistfulness which is mellifluously played by Gareth Hulse (oboe). In 2nd movement (marked Scherzo, Très animé) a rather jokier vein develops into something darker, but the last movement, (Déploration. Très calme) returns to the mood of the opening, with Ian Brown nicely judging Poulenc's rather grand gestures in the piano.

The Elegie for horn and piano was written in memory of Dennis Brain and is a rather unconvincing experiment in serialism. Poulenc had been fascinated by Schoenberg's music since the days of Les Six, but it was only after World War II that he had the briefest of flirtations with it. In fact, if you ignore the attempts at serialism (and they are easily ignored, Poulenc does not implement it with any thoroughness), then this is a rather attractive, sombre piece in a somewhat Stravinskian vein. It is altogether rather darker than the three late wind sonatas. Richard Watkins's performance convinces beautifully.

The Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon, another early work which mixes the madcap with the melancholy. It was dedicated to Manuel de Falla and took two years to complete (he referred to it in his correspondence and acknowledged Stravinsky's advice). It was first performed in 1926 at a concert that Poulenc gave with Georges Auric and his first successful piece of chamber music. It opens with a rather dramatic gesture for bassoon and piano but soon the mood gives way to the more familiar madcap.

The early Sonata for clarinet and bassoon, another experiment in atonality and polytonality, is similar to the early Sonata for two clarinets and just as unsuccessful, though Richard Hosford and Ursula Leveaux do their best to convince.

The disc ends with a performance of the Sonata for flute and piano, written in memory of Poulenc's patron, Mrs Sprague Coolidge. A beautifully limpid work, with a nice line in wistful melancholy, its mood is perfectly captured by Philippa Davies.

The major competition for this set is EMI’s 1989 compilation of Poulenc chamber music; this is incomplete as it omits some of the early items. The set is a mixture of recordings, some of which are of some historical interest, the recordings originally being made in 1964 and 1973. The pianist is Jacques Février who worked with Poulenc. For the cello sonata, he partners the dedicatee, Pierre Fournier, who turns in a vividly characterised performance. Not surprisingly, the balance between the two players rather more favours cellist, than on the Hyperion set. The Trio and Sextet are played by Février and members of Le Quintette à Vent de Paris. Though the performances lack the clarity and tidiness of the Nash Ensemble ones, they make up for this with their vivid characterisation and distinctive sound. The EMI disk has the advantage that these performers actually sound French. The wind players may not make such a homogenous sound as the Nash Ensemble, but they have a very distinctive timbre. The big disadvantage of Trio and Sextet on the EMI set is the general recorded sound. They sound closely recorded in a boxy acoustic. This has the regrettable effect of turning this into a historic document, pure and simple, certainly not a library choice. Turning to the late wind sonatas, the EMI recordings date from 1973 and the recorded sound is better, less 'historic'. The wind players still have quite a distinctive sound and they turn in strongly characterised performances. As with the Trio and Sextet, these performances make up in vividness what they might occasionally lack in clarity. But the Nash ensemble performances of these Sonatas are so well rounded and full of subtlety that they make a fine library choice.

The Nash Ensemble's recording of this lovely music has been a first choice since its original release. It is good to see that it is still in the catalogue, enabling new listeners to come to know Poulenc in such exemplary performances.

Robert Hugill

 



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