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Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997) The Music for solo piano, duo and duet
CD 1
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 Trois Arlequins (1959) [1:57]
Huit Variations sur le nom de Johannes Gutenberg (1982) [7:30]
Nocturne (1994) [4.23]
CD 2
Huit danses exotiques (duo) (1957) [10:36]
15 portraits d’enfants d’Auguste Renoir (duet) (1972) [14:19]
Trois esquisses sur les touches blanches (posth.) [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
Si Versailles m’était conté... (1953) [15:43]
Napoléon (duet) (1954) [26:39]
Scuola di Ballo (duo) (1933 arr. 1966) [24:26]
Martin Jones (piano)
Richard McMahon (Duo): Adrian Farmer (Duet)
rec. February 2011 (piano duets), June 2011 (two pianos) and October and November 2011 (solo piano), Wyastone Leys, Monmouth
NIMBUS NI 5880 [3 CDs: 59:23 + 64:48 + 66:54]

Experience Classicsonline

There is so much insouciant charm and harmonically spiced wit in these three CDs that it’s difficult to know where to start. The discs don’t progress chronologically and, in any case, dipping into and out of Françaix’s sound-world one set at a time is by far the best solution.
The stage is set in the first piece, an innocent sounding Scherzo from 1932 that rejoices in a conflation of music box and Ragtime. Cinq portraits de jeunes filles is an ingenious little cycle sporting a deliciously plangent Sicilienne whilst a decade later, in 1947, he wrote six Eloge de la danse with their extensive super-titles belying their brevity - only one broaches three minutes. The highlight is the supercharged moto perpetuo fourth. The 1960 Sonata is another typically brisk and compact effusion, dedicated to Idil Biret. It goes without saying that it embodies plenty of typically puckish writing and a degree of warmth in its slow movement. The Cinq Bis do indeed provide opportunities for encore material for every occasion. Of increasing difficulty, they’re full of caprice, not least in the Ragtime of the fourth. Huit Variations sur le nom de Johannes Gutenberg was written when the composer was 70 and its sombre theme is followed by lively, rhythmically varied variations.
The second disc is not a bit less enjoyable but here we meet some two-piano pieces, such as Huit danses exotiques where Martin Jones is joined by Richard McMahon in this dance suite that sounds very like Milhaud in light mood. 15 portraits d’enfants d’Auguste Renoir, with Adrian Farmer this time, was written in 1972 and sounds like an imposing musico-biographical series of portraits, but actually it’s a transcription of an orchestral work designed for young musicians, and full of teaching material at one effective and rather lovely. La Promenade d’un Musicologue Eclectique was composed in 1987 and is made up of homages to composers. The Handel movement evokes one of his Harpsichord Sarabandes, whilst the light, fluid Scarlatti is a charmer. The Ravel ‘hommage’ is played quite straight, for Françaix’s admiration of the composer was seemingly undimmed by time. There’s a none-too-sly dig at contemporary atonality in the panel dedicated to Contemporary Music. It’s a very rare example of Françaix genuinely indulging in nose-thumbing.
The final disc opens with Si Versailles m’était conté... (1953), a transcription of excerpts from a 1953 film. Napoléon (1953), also from a film score and written for four hands (Jones and Farmer), sees a series of waltzes and marches embedded including a notably jazzy, satiric march (‘tragique’) that evokes the Milhaud of Boeuf sur le toit days. The brilliant Scuola di Ballo is Françaix’s answer to Stravinsky’s appropriation of baroque models (Pergolesi), given that in this ballet the Frenchman employed themes by Boccherini. The neo-classical vitality is hard to resist.
These sparkling, diverse pieces are all played with real Gallic verve by Jones and his two colleagues and the recorded sound is just right, and not too billowy. With a first class booklet into the bargain, lovers of the Ravel and Satie-spiced, jazz-infused, rhythmically inexhaustible Françaix can entertain no reservations over this set.
Jonathan Woolf

See also review by Paul C Godfrey and Steve Arloff

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