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Jeux d'été: French Wind Quintets
Paul TAFFANEL (1844-1908)
Quintet (1878) [24:08]
Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Pastorale, Op. 14, No. 1 (1887) [3:05]
Eugène BOZZA (1905-1991)
Scherzo, Op. 48 (1944) [2:41]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Suite: La cheminée du roi René, Op. 205 (1939) [12:42]
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Quintet No. 1 (1948) [20:20]
The Galliard Ensemble
rec. St Michael's Church, Highgate, August 2011
DEUX-ELLES DXL1149 [62:57]

"French Wind Quintets" sounds like a match made in heaven. The translucent sound afforded by the use of just five wind instruments plays to the passion for clarity that is part and parcel of the French aesthetic.
Some will undoubtedly find this program conservative: my thought was that all the music had an unmistakably twentieth-century flavor, until I discovered that Paul Taffanel's quintet actually dates from 1878! In its day, its sidestepping harmonies, foreshadowing Richard Strauss, and its elegant dissonances must have been considered forward-looking. The writing offers the flute the customary rapid-fire staccato figures, but gives liquid phrases to the clarinet, the bassoon, and even the oboe. The Andante begins stiffly -- the low-register horn solo isn't a bad idea, but the other winds' afterbeats can't help sounding plotzy - but gains in grace as it proceeds, briefly shifting into an unsettled minor-key episode at 2:54. The Vivace finale, a romping tarantella spelled by brief passages of calm, is delightful.
The scores by Darius Milhaud and Jean Françaix stand firmly in the twentieth century. Milhaud based La cheminée du roi René on his score for the 1939 film Cavalcade d'amour, but it doesn't sound like "movie music" as we generally think of it. I've not heard the original score, but paring it down to quintet texture assuredly avoids any grandiosity which might once have inhered in it. Additionally, Milhaud's harmonic language, which flirts with polytonality, assures that, for all the variety of mood - the Chasse à Valabre movement, with its "hunting" fanfares, is perky - the overall demeanour is serious.
Conversely, Françaix's quintet, cheeky and sometimes acerbic even in lyrical passages, never strays far from playful good humour. Indeed, the main Allegro assai of the first movement plunges into a carnival atmosphere, and the whirling figurations of the Presto scherzo and the concluding Tempo di marcia francese keep the mood similarly light. Some of Françaix's scores can seem threadbare, but this piece sounds more substantial than that.
The oboe almost inevitably plays a prominent role in Pierné's Pastorale, though all these winds do their part in suggesting the countrified air, as does the 6/8 rhythm. On the other hand, I'd always associated Eugène Bozza primarily with the saxophone - I'd first encountered his music played by a saxophone quartet in Prague! - so this sparkling, Mendelssohnian Scherzo was a nice surprise.
The Galliard Ensemble members play handsomely, with crisp articulation, alert rhythms and a nice feel for the music's lyricism. Richard Bayliss's horn sound is a touch raw - here and there, I'd have liked more velvet - but he plays his exposed solos expressively, and blends into the ensemble sonority. The recorded sound glows.
What are you waiting for?
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.