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Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Le roi nu (1935) [25:58]
Les demoiselles de la nuit (1948) [36:38]
Ulster Orchestra/Thierry Fischer
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, March 2004
HYPERION CDA 67489 [62:49]



In spirit, the music of Jean Françaix, alternating passages of boulevardier suavity with others of perky impertinence, resembles that of his better-known countryman Francis Poulenc. But Françaix's neo-classical textural clarity and economy - with solo brass, particularly low trumpets, adding an insouciant edge - is the antithesis of Poulenc's glamorous orchestral sheen. The transparent sonorities, lively rhythms, variegated colors and quirky, playfully dissonant harmonic language give the music an immediate appeal; it always falls easily on the ear. Yet, owing to a lack of real melodic invention - except here and there, in the Serenade for Small Orchestra, for example - it doesn't really linger in the memory.

Hyperion doesn't list either of these recordings - representing two of the composer's nine ballets - as a premiere, I can't recall any predecessors; practically, this album fills a discographic gap. Unfortunately, it doesn't always fill it very well. In Le roi nu, based on Andersen's Emperor's New Clothes, the strings sound thin and pallid almost throughout. In the episode where the King "puts on" his new garment (tr. 10), the soloists are accurate, but dry and stingy. In the tricky passage at 2:29, the violins' tentative intonation turns downright scraggy at 2:45. Nor do they muster sufficient tone to fill out the various climaxes, especially against the winds and rolling percussion; only in Scene 4 (tr. 11) do we finally hear a plausibly full tutti sonority. Since the Ulster strings sound rich, warm and generally presentable on their Chandos recordings, I'm not sure what accounts for their threadbare tone here. Perhaps the intent was to replicate the reduced proportions of a pit orchestra, a poor idea in any case.

Or perhaps that piece simply needed more rehearsal time, for the strings sound rather better in Les demoiselles de la nuit, which serves to improve the entire effect. The horn's square phrasing in the opening Nocturne is demoralizing, but the pointillistic bits of figuration in the scene that follows are nicely buoyant; the ensuing violin solo is vibrant and full-toned; the slow waltz for Agathe's entrance is tenderly phrased. In Scene 2, the writing for legato woodwinds over pizzicato strings - a characteristic balletic Françaix texture - sounds graceful and bright-eyed. Indeed, the woodwind and brass playing in both scores is pretty much above reproach. The climax of the General procession ought to be splashier, but the strings bring a nice warmth to their theme in Agathe and the young man. I'd still like to hear the score played by a larger-sounding orchestra, but this performance at least conveys the right overall feeling. 

Hyperion's sound is pleasant but puzzling: the reasonably warm, spacious ambience we hear around the reeds and brass somehow isn't doing much for the strings. In Les demoiselles de la nuit, the woodwinds and horn occasionally sound synthetic - literally, as if produced by a synthesizer. 

The rarity of the repertoire notwithstanding, this is for Françaix completists only. 

Stephen Francis Vasta 



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