Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sonata for flute and piano, FP164 (1956-57) [12:22]
Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, FP43 (1926) [12:02]
Sonata for clarinet and piano, FP184 (1962) [13:33]
Sextet for wind quintet and piano, FP100 (1931-39) [17:28]
Sonata for oboe and piano, FP185 (1962) [13:54]
Ensemble 360 (Naomi Atherton (horn), Guy Eshed (flute), Tim Horton (piano), Matthew Hunt (clarinet), Peter Whelan (bassoon), Adrian Wilson (oboe))
rec. May 2008, Potton Hall, Suffolk. DDD, MCPS
The five chamber works on the present disc all show the essence of the music of Francis Poulenc. The duality of his character is conveyed as episodes of neo-classical frolic and expressive Romantic melodies are followed by pages of deep melancholy. Also, as is so often the case in French music, these poles are not segregated. So in the middle of a slow movement Poulenc usually puts a merry faster section, and vice versa. In the midst sadness there’s a smile, and behind laughter lies sadness. The works are inevitably somewhat similar, since Poulenc’s style is very distinct. Also the works share the structure: fast–slow–fast, except the Oboe Sonata whose pattern is inverted. But the music is so rich melodically and emotionally, that listening to the entire disc is not boring. On the contrary the works together form a big and bright picture, a meadow of flowers instead of one flower. This experience can be compared to listening to a set of Haydn piano trios.
The performances are excellent. The winds are perfectly blended and balanced; they all display brilliant virtuosity, not marred by even a single weak passage. The piano of Tim Horton is the solid base for everything. It has weight and eloquence, and is an equal partner in the sonatas. The sound of each instrument is beautiful. The clarinet seems more on the hard side, which leads to a certain shrillness in the tutti of the Sextet; but this works surprisingly well for the Clarinet Sonata, whose slow movement now sounds like a person telling his story, not like the “pure mood” of some softer readings. I was surprised but I liked it a lot.
An important feature of these performances is the constant momentum. No, there is no unnecessary hurry – for example, the first movement of the Flute Sonata is not rushed, and comes out gentle and expressive. But in the slow episodes the forward movement of the music is very noticeable. Again, I was surprised how well it works. The music obtains some restlessness, but without impatience, very fitting to the hyperactive personality of the faster parts. In each case the performers find the perfect edge, such that the music has impetus, yet it keeps its mesmerizing charm. It is certainly helped by the expressiveness of the playing. So, the slow movement of the Flute Sonata does not lose its melancholic glow, but its cantilena becomes more absorbing. The middle episode of the first movement of the Clarinet Sonata is perfectly mysterious, and the slow movement, though unusually fast, is very beautiful.
The performers evince a good understanding of what the composer wanted to say. All contrasts are well pronounced. For example, in the first movement of the Sextet, the opening and closing are deliberately very “noisy”, but then the middle episode comes as soft Romantic balm. The playing of faster episodes is energetic and bouncy, crisp and clear – which is helped by the lucid recording.
If you do not know this music, believe me that it is well worth exploring. If you only know the Clarinet or Flute Sonata, be assured that the other works share its high musical level and are as rewarding. If you know these works, this is an excellent collection of all of them under one roof, which helps you to avoid disc-changing runs when you are in the Poulenc mood. Finally, there are other recordings of the same set of works – such as the Decca 1989, with Pascal Rogé on the piano and a constellation of wind players like Patrick Gallois. The new recording can proudly stand the comparison. Probably, both of these sets can be recommended as first choice. The Decca has a more relaxed Clarinet Sonata – but, as I said, due to the expressivity of Matthew Hunt’s clarinet, the “harder” approach works wonders. I prefer the acoustic of the new recording: it is closer with the music is put more on display. In the Trio, the positions of the instruments in space are better defined, which for me increased the enjoyment. Also I favour the new Sextet: when the composer changes the combinations of the instruments, the colours are changed, and these effects are brought out to better effect by Ensemble 360, which is more entertaining. As for the emotional frankness, the liveliness of the tempi, the blending of the voices, the cohesion of ensembles, and the fun that the performers are having and conveying to the listener – Ensemble 360 contends with the best. These are ideal performances for this wonderfully buoyant music


Oleg Ledeniov
Ideal performances for this wonderfully buoyant music.

see also review by Bob Briggs