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Chamber Music for Piano and Wind Instruments
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)

Sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon, S 100 (1932, rev.39) [20:02]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Quintet in B flat major for piano, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon, Op. posth. (1876) [29:33]
Jean FRANCAIX (1912-1997)
LHeure du berger for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon (1947) [7:41]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Caprice sur des airs danois et russes for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano, Op. 79 (1887) [12:20]
Vincent D'INDY (1851-1931)
Sarabande et Menuet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon, Op. 72 (1918) arranged from Suite dans le style ancien, Op. 24 (1886) [8:03]
Vovka Ashkenazy (piano); Reykjavík Wind Quintet: (Bernharour Wilkinson (flute); Daoi Kolbeinsson (oboe); Einar Johannesson (clarinet); Joseph Ognibene (horn); Hafsteinn Gudmundsson (bassoon))
rec. April 1999, Vioistaoakirkja, Hafnarfjörour, Iceland
CHANDOS CHAN 10420 [77:39]


This Chandos release of Chamber Music for ‘Piano and Wind Instruments’ contains five scores, four of which were written by French composers. The non-French work is the Piano Quintet by Rimsky-Korsakov. The disc provides a fitting showcase for the undoubted talents of Russian-born pianist Vovka Ashkenazy. Recorded in 1999 we are not told if the disc consists of previously released material.

The first work is Poulenc’s three movement Sextet that he dedicated to Louvre curator Georges Salles. He wrote the score in 1932 and displeased with his efforts undertook considerable revision in 1939. The briskly performed, light-hearted opening movement overflows with lyricism. From 2:04 the levity subsides with a calmer ballad-like central section that gradually grows in intensity. At 7:11 the mood of the opening makes an abrupt return. The middle movement contains pleasantly tuneful music of a rather sentimental character. An extrovert and often rhythmic final movement recalls the light and easygoing lyricism of the opening movement. A gentle section develops in weight to end the score in a mood of uncertainty.

My favourite version of the Poulenc Sextet, notable for its cheerfulness and sense of immediacy is from pianist Alexandre Tharaud, flautist Philippe Bernold, oboist Olivier Doise, clarinettist Ronald van Spaendonck, Hervé Joulain on French horn and bassoonist Laurent Lefèvre. The disc was recorded in Paris in the mid-late 1990s and is available on Naxos 8.553611.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s three movement Quintet is stylish with a sense of a traditional Russian character. He wrote only a small amount of chamber music and the Quintet was composed in 1876 especially for a Russian Musical Society chamber contest and published posthumously. Rumbustious, child-like frolics pervade the opening movement whilst the central movement has a sensitive almost elusive character. The engaging and imaginative finale contains cadenzas for each of the instruments and consequently feels somewhat disjointed.

I retain a high regard for the version of the Rimsky-Korsakov from pianist Felicja Blumental and members of the New Philharmonia Wind Ensemble for their adroit interpretation. It has heaps of lyricism combined with an appealing degree of exuberance. The 1979 Chelsea, London performance is available on Brana Records BR0019 c/w the Rubinstein Quintet for piano and wind, Op. 55. 

Jean Françaix’s sextet LHeure du berger was written for a French National Radio commission in 1947. The title translates roughly as ‘The Shepherd’s Hour or ‘The Shepherd’s Rest’ and carries the subtitle of ‘Musique de Brasserie’ the name of a Parisian restaurant. The sextet is actually a suite containing three musical portraits. The bizarre opening picture Les Vieux Beaux is a mad-cap piece where frivolity abounds. In Pin-up Girls the clarinet is highly assertive in this tongue-in-cheek tableau and the final portrait Les Petits Nerveux comes across as a frantic game of chase.

Although I do not have a version of Françaix’s LHeure du berger to recommend the alternative recording most likely to be encountered is from the Gaudier Ensemble with Susan Tomes. Recorded at the Henry Wood Hall, London in 1997 the performance is available on Hyperion CDA67036 c/w Françaix: Octet -A huit; Divertissement and Clarinet Quintet.

Camille Saint-Saëns wrote the quartet Caprice sur des airs danois et russes to take on a tour of St. Petersburg in 1887. As the Empress Maria Feodorovna, a Danish Princess, was to be present at the intended occasion Saint-Saëns delightfully and proficiently combined Danish and Russian themes into the score. However, I have read that the themes were of Saint-Saëns’s own creation. Divided into six sections the score is played without a break. It opens with a Poco allegro that has a brazen and boastful character; I enjoyed the reverential and courtly Andantino; the serious and reserved Moderato and the bustling and light-hearted Allegro vivace.

I greatly admire the version of the Saint-Saëns Caprice from members of the Ensemble Villa Musica who play it persuasively with great fluency and considerable panache. Their 1991 Bad Arolsen performance has been re-issued on MDG Gold 304 0395-2 c/w Saint-Saëns Chamber Music for Wind Instruments and Piano: Oboe Sonata, Op. 166; Clarinet Sonata, Op. 167; Bassoon Sonata, Op. 168 and Romance for Flute and Piano, Op. 37.

Another fine version of the Saint-Saëns Caprice is from members of the Nash Ensemble who offer fresh, thoughtful and invigorating performances. Their 2004 Henry Wood Hall, London performance is on a double set on Hyperion CDA67431-2 c/w Septet, Op 65; Tarentelle for flute, clarinet and piano, Op 6; Bassoon Sonata, Op 168; Piano Quartet, Op 41; Piano Quintet, Op 14; Oboe Sonata, Op 166 and Clarinet Sonata, Op 167.

Vincent d’Indy’s sextet Sarabande et Menuet was written in 1918. The composer arranged both the Sarabande and Menuet from his five movement Suite dans le style ancien, (Suite in the olden style) for two flutes, trumpet and string quartet, Op. 24 from 1886. This colourful and appealing score feels somewhat orchestral in weight. I found the Sarabande even-tempered and the spirited Menuet bouncy and darting.

There is still listed in the catalogue an admired 1991 release of the d’Indy Sarabande et Menuet that also contains the above mentioned Saint-Saëns Caprice and Françaix L’Heure du berger. Featuring the playing of pianist Pascal Rogé et al it may be possible to track down this valuable and celebrated disc of French Chamber Music on the Decca London label 425 861-2 c/w Roussel Divertissement; Tansman Danse de la sorcière; Poulenc Elégie and Milhaud Sonata for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano.

On this Chandos recording I was struck by the way that pianist Vovka Ashkenazy and the Reykjavík Wind Quintet perform persuasively without any tendency for histrionics. I was left with a strong sense that they were letting the music do the talking. Some listeners might prefer an increased accentuation of dynamics and feel that the music would profit at times from slightly more bite. The Chandos sound quality is recorded to a decent standard with an admirable balance between piano and winds. The booklet notes from Edward Blakeman are impressive, providing much interesting and appropriate information. 

Michael Cookson

 

 

 


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