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
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.