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Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
100th Anniversary Set - Special Edition
Contents and artists list at end of review
rec. 1967-97, various locations in Germany WERGO WER69562 [3 CDs: 73.28 + 79.32 + 74.43]
Captivated by a number of Jean Françaix’s scores I had recently heard most notably the Symphony in G major and the Octet ‘A huit’ I was directed to this release on the German Wergo label. This is not new: it is a special edition originally issued in 2012 to mark the 100th anniversary of Françaix’s birth.
The author of the meagre Wergo booklet notes Thomas Daniel Schlee writes that Françaix’s music “is ubiquitous and frequently performed” which not something I have experienced in the U.K. Unless the situation is vastly different in France since his death in 1997 Françaix’s music has found difficulty in establishing itself in the repertoire. It’s not an uncommon situation for a composer to lose his foothold on the repertory after his or her death. Around the time of Françaix’s anniversary a number of recordings did appear but I cannot ever remember seeing a Françaix work on a concert/recital programme in the U.K., Germany or the USA. Inexplicably Françaix’s name is absent from number of music reference books and record guides.
Just a few biographical notes about Françaix who was born in Le Mans, France in 1912 into a musical family. His father Alfred, a composer and pianist was Director of the Conservatoire of Le Mans and his mother Jeanne Provost a singing teacher. Françaix studied piano at the Conservatoire of Le Mans and then composition at the Paris Conservatory. His teachers included Nadia Boulanger, Isidor Philipp and Henri Büsser, he knew Stravinsky and became a friend of Poulenc. A prolific composer of over 200 works Françaix’s music has been championed by conductors such as Ernest Ansermet, Marius Constant, Roger Desormière, Antál Doráti, Manuel Rosenthal, Charles Munch, Georges Prêtre and Hermann Scherchen. As well as winning a number of awards and considerable acclaim Françaix led a successful career as a concert pianist. If fact, Françaix and his daughter Claude play together on this release.
Recorded between 1967 and 1997 I understand that virtually all the works on this set have been issued previously. The set contains a large number of works featuring wind instruments: a group that Françaix was particularly attracted to and wrote so well for.
The first CD titled ‘Françaix par lui-même’ contains four substantial works commencing with the Variations sur un thème plaisant for piano and winds. From 1976 these are eleven short but very attractive works performed by the composer on piano and the Bläser Ensemble Mainz under Klaus Rainer Schöll. Nicely contrasted pieces, I especially enjoyed the delightful, summery Variation IV - Andante and the skittish Variation 5 - Andantino.
For solo piano the Cinq portraits de jeunes filles are early works written in 1936. Once again these are pleasant pieces played splendidly by the composer each with a title that gives an indication of mood: La Capricieuse, La Tendre, La Prétentieuse, La Pensiveet La Moderne.
Sadly one of Françaix’s finest and most successful works, the short neo-classical Concertino for piano and orchestra a very early work from 1932, written shortly after winning the piano prize at the Paris Conservatoire, is not present among these three discs. Nevertheless the admirable Concerto for two pianos and orchestra written in 1965 is included and is played by the composer and his daughter Claude Françaix with the Sinfonieorchester des Südwestfunks, Baden-Baden under Pierre Stoll. The four movement score is mainly an exciting romp with a contrasting Doppio più lento second movement that is on the serious side with a rather dark undertow.
The final work on the first disc is the Harpsichord concerto from 1959. In this five movement score the composer is on the harpsichord supported by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbücken directed by Emile Naoumoff. One of Françaix’s finest this works this is yet another ebullient piece with a particularly memorable opening movement Toccata I. Following on are a carefree Toccata II, a dreamy Andantino, an elegant Menuet and an energetic Finale.
Titled ‘Divertimento’ the second CD consists of six works, five of which are for wind ensemble with only the Guitar Concerto requiring a string orchestra. Le gay Paris is scored for trumpet and winds written in 1974. The outside movements burst with vitality and there’s a contrasting languid central Valse. Trumpeter Carole Dawn Reinhart is a most satisfying soloist accompanied by the Bläser Ensemble Mainz under Klaus Rainer Schöll.
Composed in 1973 the Neuf pièces caractéristiques are scored for ten wind instruments and cast in very short movements. Performed by the Bläser Ensemble Mainz under Klaus Rainer Schöll the writing is variedly characterful, predominantly upbeat in mood and never aggressive.
One of Françaix’s most performed scores L’heure du berger a suite for piano and wind quintet subtitled ‘Musique de Brasserie’ was written in 1947 in admiration of a renowned Paris restaurant. Here L’heure du berger is presented in a slightly expanded arrangement prepared by Friedrick K. Wanek for eight winds and piano. Les Vieux beaux the opening movement is infused with the essence of the dance, the central movement Pin-up Girls feels like a polite conservation and the rhythmic final movement Les petits nerveux is bright and vibrant. The work is capably performed by pianist Agatha Wanek with the Bläser Ensemble Mainz under Klaus Rainer Schöll.
From 1971 Sept danses, d’après le ballet ‘Les malheurs de Sophie’ is scored for ten winds. The ballet ‘Les malheurs de Sophie’ was written in 1935 and is based on a 19th-century French children’s book. So typical of Françaix the movements of the Sept danses are variedly characterful being principally buoyant in mood displaying a blaze of colour. It is hard to fault the playing of the Bläser Ensemble Mainz under Klaus Rainer Schöll.
Next the five movement Guitar Concerto that Françaix composed in 1982/83. Like most of Françaix’s works this is vibrant and colourful ranging from moody to upbeat, from calming to vital. I especially enjoyed the melodically memorable central movement Presto ma non troppo — so agreeable and inoffensive. Notable also is the Finale: Allegrissimo for its swirling colours and absorbing central Cadenza. Here the excellent guitar soloist Emanuele Segre is accompanied by the Südwestdeutsches Kammerochester under Hans Richter.
The final work on CD two is the Danses exotiques in a version for 11 winds and percussion from 1981. In this terrifically entertaining work there are eight short movements full of enjoyable, foot-tapping rhythms all written in a Latin American style. John Dvorachek is the industrious percussionist playing with the Bläser Ensemble Mainz directed by Klaus Rainer Schöll.
Titled ‘Jean Françaix et…’ the third disc is a rather curious mix comprising ten works: mainly transcriptions, arrangements and variations based on music from composers that Françaix admired. As a foreword to five of the works Jean Françaix provides a very short spoken introduction in French.
The opening track is the Onze variations sur un thème de Haydn, for nine winds and double bass. Written in 1982 this I imagine is based on the theme that sounds rather like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star from the Andante of Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G Surprise. Played by the Bläser Ensemble Mainz featuring bassist Ichiro Noda under Klaus Rainer Schöll this attractive and colourful set would I’m sure be eminently suitable for light classical music radio such as the British Classic FM.
Next a transcription of Schubert’s Trois marches militaires that Françaix arranged for ten winds in 1987. Played by members of the Bläser Ensemble Amadé directed by Klaus Rainer Schöll this is typically agreeable music with the well known third movement Allegro sounding vibrant and especially effective in this new guise.
Written by Françaix to commemorate the bicentenary of Mozart’s death in 1991 the pleasing Élégie is a soothing and polished work played by the Bläser Ensemble Amadé under Klaus Rainer Schöll.
In 1989 Françaix arranged two Chopin works for an ensemble of ten winds the Trois ecossaise and the Variations sur un air populaire allemand. In three extremely short movements the Trois ecossaise come across as mainly playful with a more determined quality to the final Giocoso. Cast in seven movements the Variations sur un air populaire allemand consist of an introduction and theme with a set of five variations. Although slight this is a most gratifying score and played so expertly too by Ensemble Amadé under Klaus Rainer Schöll.
The next score is Françaix’s arrangement of the music of his fellow countryman Emmanuel Chabrier. From the Huit Pièces picturesque Françaix arranged Trois pièces pittoresques for ten winds in 1984. Performed by the Bläser Ensemble Amadé under Klaus Rainer Schöll the three pieces are entirely engaging. The first piece Mélancolie is suitably forlorn in mood, the second piece Menuet pompous upbeat and vibrant followed by the eighth piece a brisk and rosy Scherzo-valse.
Composed in 1979 is Françaix’s own work the Petite valse européenne written for tuba and double wind quintet. This agreeable work which includes a snippet of La Marseillaise is played by accomplished tuba player Christophe Schneider and the Bläser Ensemble Amadé directed by Klaus Rainer Schöll.
A very short piece indeed is the melodic Quasi improvvisando. Scored for wind ensemble the work written by Françaix in 1975 is played by the Bläser Ensemble Mainz under Klaus Rainer Schöll.
Another short piece is Françaix’s ‘Mozart new-look’, petite fantasy for double bass and winds on ‘Don Giovanni’ from 1981. Bassist Ichiro Noda performs the work with the Bläser Ensemble Mainz led by Klaus Rainer Schöll.
The final work of the set is the Hommage à l’ami Papageno - an enchanting fantasy for piano and six winds on Mozart’s The Magic Flute written in 1984. Skilfully played by the composer on the piano the accompaniment is from the Bläser Ensemble Mainz conducted by Klaus Rainer Schöll. This is another compelling work that I could easily imagine on a Classic FM playlist.
Demonstrating excellence throughout the standard of the impeccably prepared performances is unfailing compelling. The sound quality is of consistently high quality too despite the variety of recording venues. The only drawbacks are the absence of the Concertino for piano and orchestra (1932) and the woeful lack of information in the booklet about each work.
This superb release from 2012 has broad appeal and should be obligatory listening for lovers of French music.
CD 1 ‘Françaix par lui-même’
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 ‘Divertimento’
Le gay Paris, for trumpet and winds (1974) [12.55]
Neuf pièces caractéristiques, for ten winds (1973) [14.53]
L’heure du berger (1947) (arranged Friedrick K. Wanek for 8 winds and piano) [6.45]
Sept danses d’après le ballet ‘Les malheurs de Sophie’, for ten winds (1971) [11.38]
Guitar concerto (1982/83) [23.11]
Danses exotiques, for 11 winds and percussion (1981) [7.27]
CD 3 ‘Jean Françaix et…’
Onze variations sur un thème de Haydn, for 9 winds and double bass (1982) [10.47] Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Trois marches militaires (arranged Françaix for ten winds, 1987) [14.37]
Texte de présentation: Jean Françaix speaks in French [0.26]
Élégie pour commémorer le bicentenaire de la mort de Mozart (1990) [4.23]
Texte de présentation: Jean Françaix speaks in French [0.47] Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Trois ecossaises (arranged Françaix for ten winds, 1989) [2.18]
Variations sur un air populaire allemand (arranged Françaix for ten winds, 1989) [7.36]
Texte de présentation: Jean Françaix speaks in French [0.18] Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Trois pièces pittoresques (arranged Françaix for ten winds, 1984) [12.25]
Texte de présentation: Jean Françaix speaks in French [0.18]
Petite valse européenne, for tuba and double wind quintet (1979) [7.02]
Quasi improvvisando, for winds (1975) [1.41]
Mozart new-look, petite fantasy for double bass and winds on ‘Don Giovanni’ (1981) [2.33]
Hommage à l’ami Papageno, fantasy for piano and six winds on ‘The Magic Flute’ (1984) [8.49]
Jean Françaix, piano (solo piano, double piano concerto, Hommage à l’ami Papageno); Claude Françaix, piano (double piano concerto); Jean Françaix, harpsichord (harpsichord concerto); 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)
Sinfonieorchester des Südwestfunks, Baden-Baden/Pierre Stoll (double piano concerto); Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbücken/Emile Naoumoff (harpsichord concerto); Südwestdeutsches Kammerochester/Hans Richter (guitar concerto); Bläser Ensemble Amadé/Klaus Rainer Schöll (Schubert, Chopin, Chabrier, élégie, petite valse), Bläser Ensemble Mainz/Klaus Rainer Schöll (remaining works)