Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
CD 1 [59:23]
Scherzo (1932) [2.16]
Cinq portraits de jeunes filles (1936) [12.56]
Eloge de la danse (1947) [11.22]
Sonate pour piano (1960) [9.29]
Cinq “Bis” (1955) [9.35]
Danse des trios arlequins (1959) [1.57]
Huit Variations (1982) [7.30]
Nocturne (1994) [4.23]
CD 2 [64:45]
Huit danses exotiques (1957) [10.36] *
15 portraits d’enfants d’Auguste Renoir (1972) [14.19] +
Trois esquisses sur les touches blanches (1983) [4.37]
La Promenade d’un musicologue eclectique (1987) [18.43]
“De la musique avant tout chose” (1975) [8.46]
Pour Jacqueline (1922) [7.27]
CD 3 [66:54]
Si Versailles m’était conté (1953) [15.43]
Napoleon (1954) [26.39] +
Scuola di Ballo (1933, arr 1966) [24.26] *
Martin Jones with *Richard McMahon, +Adrian Farmer (pianos)
rec. Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, 14-15 February+, 22 June*, 31 October, 1, 14-15 November 2011
NIMBUS NI 5880 [3 CDs: 59:23 + 64:48 + 66:54]
It was always the heartfelt wish of Jean Françaix that his music should give enjoyment and pleasure to his listeners, and in this 3 CD collection of his music for piano he does just that. From the early For Jacqueline published at the age of ten to the Nocturne written when the composer was a sprightly 82, the good humour is ever-present virtually untroubled by any sense of melancholy. One could describe this music as “neo-classicism without tears”. Although sometimes the harmonies are jazzily spiced, there is never any of the sense of experimentation with multi-tonality than can at times make the music of Les Six so unsettling.
To subject every piece on this comprehensive collection to a detailed analysis or criticism would be to break a butterfly on a wheel. It is best to highlight some pieces which bring particular pleasure. The Fifteen Portraits of children by Auguste Renoir, designed like many of the pieces here as teaching vehicles, open with a beautiful berçeuse which has all the charm of Fauré’s Dolly Suite but which at under a minute in duration is all too brief. The Three studies on the white notes (also designed as exercises for children) create evocative music from their very limitations, with a beautifully pensive second movement entitled La rêveur pendant la leçon de piano. The pastiches which constitute La promenade d’un musicologue eclectique bring some delightfully tongue-in-cheek touches: Handel’s grand opening gestures lead to a quicker passage which sounds rather like a version of Charlie is my darling, and Scarlatti gets gloriously mixed up with Mendelssohn and Beethoven. Françaix extracted the Hommage à Maurice Ravel from this suite and orchestrated it as Pavane pour un Génie vivant, which Hyperion have recorded in their collections of Françaix’s orchestral music (review; review; also CDA67384). The composer’s highly satirical view of contemporary music in the next sketch is described in the booklet as “too poisonous to be really amusing” but its encapsulation of avant-garde absurdities in a span of just over two minutes is all too realistic and great fun as a result: a passage where the piano is tapped is drily marked maestoso, and the piece begins in silence with a “brief meditation, right hand on the keys, left hand in Glenn Gould position.” The resolutely twelve-tone Humphrey Searle got away with this sort of thing in his Hoffnung concert parodies such as Punkt Kontrapunkt; why should Françaix be denied his chance to join in the fun? The final section pokes sly fun at Adam’s O holy night. The incredibly precocious suite For Jacqueline brings the survey of the music originally written for piano on the first two discs to an end. One notes that the composer’s style really changed very little over the following seventy years although perhaps his very mild flirtation with harmonic astringency abated slightly over time. Certainly the Rock’n’Roll finale to the Eight exotic dances has very little sense of rock music about it, with much more kinship to Milhaud’s Scaramouche for the same two-piano medium.
The most substantial work on these three discs is the 1960 Piano Sonata, which although it is less than ten minutes in duration is clearly meant to be taken seriously. The second movement Elegy is nicely judged but the quicker movements are all perhaps a little heavy-handed for their essentially light-hearted material. The work was dedicated to Idil Biret who recorded it at the time of the première when she was nineteen, and whose recording has been reissued on Naxos as part of a miscellaneous recital. Jones obviously brings greater maturity and warmth to the score, and his recorded sound is superior.
The final disc contains music from three of Françaix’s film scores in piano arrangements, and these three suites are the longest pieces in the collection. Jones plays, as one would expect, with absolute precision and assurance and his partners in the works for two pianos or piano (four hands) match him stylishly. The industry and indefatigability of this artist deserve our utmost gratitude. Over the years he has given us complete editions of the piano music of many composers whose works in this field would otherwise have remained totally unknown, and the results have always been superb. Françaix was an extraordinarily prolific composer, but even so he has never received a CD recording of more than selections from his piano music. Now we have three at once, and curiosity is most definitely satisfied.
After a while one gets the same sort of feeling that one does in the company of a friend or acquaintance whose company is absolutely charming for a short period of time, but the relentless inconsequentiality of whose conversation starts to grate after a period. In the end one can only feel the overwhelming desire to urge this terminally cheerful character to either give it a rest for a bit, or to buzz off and leave one in peace. Even the music for the film Napoleon is remorselessly light-hearted - at one moment [track 5, 2’50”] one surely hears a pre-echo of Blackadder! - as is the film score for the documentary Si Versailles m’était conté with its pastiches of La Marseillaise and various dance rhythms. Unless the listener has a pathologically sweet tooth, half an hour of Françaix is as much as anyone should seek to consume at any one time. To do him justice, one suspects that the composer never imagined that anyone would want to digest more than that at any one helping. However here we have a collection which will furnish hours of harmless delight – if sampled in a piecemeal fashion.
The only competition in this repertoire comes from a single CD selection played by Nicola Narboni, whose playing is suitably light-hearted but suffers from an unsuitably dry acoustic which almost entirely eliminates any sense of resonance from her instrument. She plays several of the suites but excludes any of the music for more than one player, and for some reason splits the five Encores throughout the length of her CD.
The booklet notes here are comprehensive, informative - although the track listing for some reason identifies the 1983 Trois esquisses as “posth” - and extremely well written but self-effacingly anonymous*! They follow Françaix through his career as a composer for piano chronologically, but the first two CDs mix the works originally written for piano from different periods to create as much contrast as possible. Foreign purchasers should be warned that the notes come exclusively in English, and there is no translation even into French.
In short this set makes a worthy complement to the discs of orchestral music to which Hyperion have been treating us over the years, but the limited nature of Françaix’s muse is rather too well conveyed by the set cover illustration of a clown balancing on a monocycle.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
* We have been informed that the notes were written by Paul Conway
Françaix’s music gives enjoyment and pleasure and this collection does just that.