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Capriccio (1938) [10:41]
Trois Pièces brèves (1930) [7:01]
Concerto pour violoncelle et instruments à vents (1925) [12:41]
Deux Mouvements (1922) [7:03] Deux Stèles orientées (1925) [4:45] Cinq Pièces en trio (1934) [7:13] Le Jardinier de Samos (1924) [10:30]
Henri Demarquette (cello: concerto)
Karine Deshayes (mezzo: Stèles)
Ensemble Initium/Clément Mao-Takacs
rec. Conservatoire, Rueil-Malmaison, January 2014 (Capriccio, Le Jardinier de Samos) and Coeur de Ville, Vincennes, October 2013 (other works) TIMPANI 1C1210 [61:02]
Jacques Ibert is all-too-often bluntly dismissed as a light-weight whose music is frequently criticised for its sometimes shallow charm. By so doing one tends to forget that he too could compose substantial pieces such as his much neglected String Quartet written during the Second World War. It's often regarded as one of his most personal statements. Then there are his substantial scores for Orson Welles' Macbeth (1948) and Julien Duvivier's Golgotha (1935). That Ibert achieved some success with works such as Trois Pièces brèves for wind quintet or the lovely piano cycle Histoires of which the ubiquitous Little White Donkey readily became a world-wide winner, militated against him being taking seriously. However, his music is characterised by a supreme craftsmanship that enabled him to write for any genre or any instrumental combination without sounding either bland or forçé.
As a number of other French composers, and one particularly thinks of Poulenc, he excelled in writing for wind instruments. This is amply demonstrated by this release devoted to his complete output for wind instruments. Curiously enough, however, very little of this part of his output is actually known. There is one exception: the ubiquitous Trois Pièces brèves for wind quintet drawn from incidental music composed for George Farquhar's Le Stratagème des roués. This is in the repertoire of all wind quintets around the world, and deservedly so. They form a telling example of Ibert's art marked by concision, deft use of instruments and melodic charm. The same may be said about most pieces recorded here. Moreover a number of them here are drawn from incidental music. So, Le Jardinier de Samos was composed as incidental music to Charles Vildrac's eponymous play. It was composed in 1924 but only used as such in 1932, which is why the suite drawn from the score as heard here was first performed in 1925, Darius Milhaud conducting. The scoring for small ensemble is rather unusual: flute, clarinet, trumpet, tambourine, violin and cello. Ibert uses the individual colour of each instrument with great skill. The music is light in mood with some mild irony, as heard in the 'academic' fugal prelude to the fourth act. Composed at about the same time the Concerto for Cello and Winds (1925) is a short piece in three compact movements scored for wind octet, horn and trumpet. At times the music hints at jazz and polytonal harmonies inherited from Milhaud and Les Six with Stravinsky nearby. It is Ibert's first concerto and it fared rather less well than either the Flute Concerto (1934) or the Saxophone Concerto (1935). The reason for this comparative neglect is due to the less than grateful thematic material; a far cry from what may be heard in, say, the delightful Flute Concerto. It is worth more than the occasional hearing.
As with some other French composers such as Caplet and Roussel, Ibert also composed songs for voice and flute on poems by Victor Segalen. The resulting Deux Stèles orientées is a beautifully wrought diptych in which not a single note is wasted.
In 1919 Ibert won the Premier Grand Prix de Rome. During his stay at the Villa Médici Ibert chose to compose a quartet but he wrote it for the quite unusual combination of two flutes, clarinet and bassoon. The Deux Mouvements (1922) is already a typical Ibert work, and the mild irony of the material and the piquancy of the scoring had some academics raising a gruff eyebrow. That said, the work proves both successful and attractive.
In 1934 Louise Dyer, founder of Les Editions de l'Oiseau-Lyre, commissioned short pieces for recorder from several French composers. This was an attempt to provide new repertoire for the instrument. Ibert composed Pastorale for flute quartet and A Childish Suite for two recorders that remained unpublished in its original form. So, never one to waste a good idea, Ibert reworked the suite for oboe, clarinet and bassoon as Cinq Pièces en trio, which is what is recorded here. Again, the music may have had some didactic aim but Ibert succeeded in making it interesting for players and audiences alike.
The most recent work here, although dating from 1938, is Capriccio for a small orchestra consisting of a wind quartet, trumpet, harp and string quartet. This the composer described as “simply prompted by my fantasy of the moment and [eluding] any process or preconceived system”. Ibert's modest appraisal of this work is in fact totally unjustified for in spite of its approachable surface, the music is much more tightly structured and worked-out than one might think at first hearing. This very fine piece is yet another telling example of Ibert's music-making whose technical fluency and appealing melodic content more often than not conceal accomplished craftsmanship.
It would be unfair to single out any of the musicians of Ensemble Initium. Each plays with immaculate technique and commitment to the music which each of them obviously cherishes. These superb performances are magnificently recorded in natural acoustics making the best of Ibert's meticulously laid-out music. A pure joy from first to last. Ibert may not have been a composer of ground-breaking importance in his time but his music is badly needed in our troubled times. That is enough to earn our gratefulness. So, do not hesitate for this is a disc to enjoy with open ears and – more importantly – open heart. A lovely disc. Hubert Culot