Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Music for String Orchestra
Symphonie d’Archets (1948) [21.10]
Ode sur ‘La Naissance de Vénus’ de Botticelli (1960) [5.17]
Die Kamelien, Pantomime für Schauspieler (1950) [25.12]
Sir Georg Solti Chamber Orchestra, Budapest/Kerry Stratton,
rec. 2011, Studio 22, Hungarian Radio, Budapest, Hungary

Having recently reviewed the Jean Françaix 100th Anniversary Set on Wergo issued in 2012 I was delighted to obtain this Françaix release of Music for String Orchestra on Toccata Classics.

Since his death in 1997 Françaix’s music has found difficulty in establishing itself in the repertoire. It is not an uncommon situation for a composer to lose his foothold on the repertory after his death. Around the time of Françaix’s anniversary a number of recordings have appeared but personally I cannot ever recall seeing a Françaix work on a concert/recital programme in the U.K., Germany and the USA. Inexplicably Françaix’s name is absent from number of music reference books and record guides.

Here are a few biographical notes about Jean 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 some 230 works Françaix’s music has received advocacy from eminent conductors such as Ernest Ansermet, Marius Constant, Roger Desormière, Antal Dorati, Manuel Rosenthal, Charles Munch, Georges Prêtre and Hermann Scherchen. As well as winning a number of awards and considerable acclaim for his composing Françaix led a success career as a concert pianist.

This release ‘Music for String Orchestra’ contains three works all written within twelve years of each other and the annotation states that the Ode surLa Naissance de Vénus’ and ‘Die Kamelien’ are receiving their first recordings.

Opening the disc is the Symphonie d’Archets (Symphony for Strings) a work premièred in London and conducted by Nadia Boulanger. Françaix’s typically elegant, agreeable and undemanding sound-world imbues this neo-classical work which does uncharacteristically contain some chromaticism serving slightly to unsettle the delightful optimism and calm. The author of the booklet notes does suggest the string symphonies of Rossini and Mendelssohn as classical models but Françaix creates his own individual sound-world. In the opening movement Andante misterioso - Allegro assai the string writing slightly reminiscent of English pastoralism in the manner of John Ireland, Frank Bridge and Rutland Boughton. A slightly dark undertow was most evident in the second movement Andante molto, followed by the reassuring optimism of the Scherzo. Concluding the work is the upbeat, affirmative Allegro assai revealing shades of an English light music manner redolent of Eric Coates and Ronald Binge.

At just over five minutes in length the Ode surLa Naissance de Vénus’ (The Birth of Venus) de Botticelli from 1960 is an appealing and calming meditation on Sandro Botticelli’s beautiful painting displayed in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Written in 1950 the final work carrying its German title ‘Die Kamelien’ (The Camellias), Pantomime für Schauspieler is one of Françaix’s sixteen ballets. The following year the ballet described as a ‘pantomime’ in six scenes was premièred in New York. George Balanchine’s choreography is based on a scenario by the Austrian based dancer and actress Sonia Korty - a type of fantasia from the Alexandre Dumas novel La Dame aux camélias. The first three movements are primarily calm being almost always agreeable and undemanding. In the fourth movement Das Landaus: Vivo there is a noticeably lugubrious core with the following two movements showing a slight tinge of melancholy through their surface charm.

Kerry Stratton conducts with assurance, adopting pacing that feels judicious. The playing from the Sir Georg Solti Chamber Orchestra, Budapest is highly committed and warmly expansive yet occasionally the unity could have been a touch tighter. Recorded in Studio 22 of Hungarian Radio, Budapest the sound-team for Toccata Classics has provided good clarity with decent presence and is well balanced too. I feel obliged to mention the short playing time of fifty-two minutes but the excellent booklet notes provide some degree of compensation. There is no need to hesitate with this excellent addition to the Jean Françaix discography.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Nick Barnard
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