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Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
100th anniversary set
see contents and artists list at end of review
rec. 1967-1997, Germany
WERGO WER 6956 2 [3 CDs: 73:28 + 79:32+ 74:43]

 
Jean Françaix’s centenary last year was marked by a few excellent releases, and I seem to have been tasked with reviewing all of them. Having covered a bounty of chamber music, I took a little break before tackling this three-CD set of music for orchestra and wind ensembles. It’s as fun, cheery and fresh as everything else Françaix wrote, but there’s more to it than that.
 
His style, in brief: winning melodies, the ease and charm of a coffee-shop wit, and music largely untroubled by matters of depth, seriousness, sadness, or modernity in general. To the extent that Françaix is interested in other 20th century music, it’s the likes of Milhaud, Gershwin, and perhaps secular Poulenc. There’s a simplicity to the music that explains its obscurity: musicologists turned their noses up at such non-serious fare, and the sameness of the composer’s language means that, even though Françaix is a lot of fun, he never really changes. The only works I’ve heard that defy my characterization are two concertos found in this collection.
 
If you can accept that, or if you already know you like Françaix, this is a worthy treasury. Some of the work titles telegraph their content: Variations on a Pleasant Theme is a very pleasant piece, the wildly scored Danses exotiques include Caribbean sounds and “Rock’n’roll”, Le gay Paris lets the trumpet soloist parade down the avenues in an absurdly catchy march, and Cinq portraits de jeunes filles, a solo piano work, is a sort of French version of the Gershwin piano preludes. One wonders how else Françaix showed the jeunes filles his obvious affection.
 
The harpsichord concerto is more serious and more directly ‘modern’, and the minuet’s trio contains some incredibly lovely writing for the accompanying orchestra, but the choice of solo instrument does not indicate an attempt to mimic baroque style.
 
Two more substantial works are the guitar concerto and the concerto for two pianos, which at a half-hour is the longest Françaix piece I know. I haven’t heard his L’Apocalypse selon St. Jean, Oratorio fantastique. The guitar concerto is one of the few which doesn’t sound at all Spanish; instead it brings out an interesting new style which blends Italianate folk with a cheeky-but-strident tone like some kind of Parisian Shostakovich. The string orchestra accompanies with furious pizzicatos and, in the first larghetto, an astonishing combination of trick effects and warm melody. The frustrating thing about Françaix is that it doesn’t stay a larghetto for long. The finale is capped by a sensitive, songlike cadenza; all in all this is now one of my favorite works by Françaix.
 
My other favorite? The concerto for two pianos is more romantic in aesthetic than most: the piano writing at times evokes the Debussy of Children’s Corner or the Ravel of Le Tombeau de Couperin, with the orchestra contributing lovely horn melodies and the occasional bassoon duet. The eight-minute lento slow movement might be the best sustained slow music I’ve ever heard from Françaix, a finely textured nocturne that never grows overripe and never hastens on its way. Truly superb.
 
After these two exceptional concertos and the deliciously wacky Danses exotiques, the third CD comes as a bit of a surprise: these are all Françaix arrangements of, or tributes to, other composers. Schubert’s Marches Militaires get arranged for wind battery, as do trifles by Chopin and Chabrier, while Françaix composes fantasies on themes by Haydn (the “Surprise” symphony; there’s a long double bass solo which very fancifully strays from Haydn to other composers) and Mozart (arias from The Magic Flute). In a French spoken introduction, Françaix tells us that his Petite valse européenne is for “that prima donna, the tuba.” How many quotations can you identify? The Don Giovanni serenade starts off by quoting the wrong opera by the wrong composer, and Quasi improvvisando might as well have been written by P.D.Q. Bach.
 
So this set shows that there are several sides to Jean Françaix. There is the wit and sparkle of Le gay Paris, the love of his predecessors which gives us an elegy for Mozart and an homage to Papageno, and — most surprisingly — an emotional depth which is rare in Françaix but very strongly present in the concerto for two pianos. All told, of all the Françaix tribute albums which came out in 2012, this is probably the one I’m happiest to have. Recorded over many years and in many places, the engineering never detracts from the enjoyment.
 
Brian Reinhart
 
 
Contents List
 
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
CD 1
Variations sur un thème plaisant, for piano and winds (1976) [7:27]
Cinq portraits de jeunes filles, for piano (1936) [13:51]
Concerto for two pianos and orchestra (1965) [17:00]
Harpsichord concerto (1959) [7:45]
CD 2
Le gay Paris, for trumpet and winds (1974) [12:55]
Neuf pièces caractéristiques, for ten winds (1973)
L’heure du Berger (1947) (arr. Wanek for 8 winds and piano) [6:45]
Sept danses d’après le ballet “Les malheurs de Sophie”, for ten winds (1971)
Guitar concerto (1982-83)
Danses exotiques, for 11 winds and percussion (1981)
CD 3
Onze variations sur un thème de Haydn, for 9 winds and double bass (1982)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Trois marches militaires (arr. Françaix for ten winds, 1987)
Françaix
Élégie pour commémorer le bicentenaire de la mort de Mozart (1990)
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Trois ecossaises (arr. Françaix for ten winds, 1989)
Variations sur un air populaire allemand (arr. Françaix for ten winds, 1989)
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Trois pièces pittoresques (arr. Françaix for ten winds, 1984)
Françaix
Petite valse européenne, for tuba and double wind quintet (1979)
Quasi improvvisando, for winds (1975)
Mozart new-look, petite fantasy for double bass and winds on “Don Giovanni” (1981)
Hommage à l’ami Papageno, fantasy for piano and six winds on “The Magic Flute” (1984)
Jean Françaix, piano (CDs 1 and 3) and harpsichord (harpsichord concerto); Claude Françaix, piano (concerto for two pianos); Agathe Wanek, piano (L’heure du berger); Carole Dawn Reinhart, trumpet (Le gay Paris); Emanuele Segre, guitar (concerto); John Dvorachek, percussion (Danses exotiques); Ichiro Noda, double bass (Haydn variations and Mozart new-look)
SWR Orchestra Baden-Baden, Pierre Stoll (double piano concerto); Saarbrücken Radio Orchestra, Emile Naoumoff (harpsichord concerto); Southwest German Chamber Orchestra, Hans Richter (guitar concerto); Bläser Ensemble Amadé (Schubert, Chopin, Chabrier, élégie, petite valse), Bläser Ensemble Mainz (everything else)
rec. 1967, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1980, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1997, all over the place, Germany
WERGO WER 6956 2 [3 CDs: 73:28 + 79:32+ 74:43]

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