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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Le Bal Masqué [18:35]
Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon [12:19]
Le Bestiaire (ou le Cortège d’Orphée) [4:13]
Sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn [17:02]
Thomas Allen (baritone)
Nash Ensemble
rec. 1986, Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London
CRD 3437 [53:45]

A review following their appearance at last year’s Edinburgh Festival asked “Is there a better-equipped, more polished, stylish, or characterful chamber music group than the Nash Ensemble anywhere on the planet?”. This very welcome re-issue reminds us that if the Nash Ensemble is impressive today, that is nothing to what it was back in the 1980s when it made a series of recordings of repertory which few ensembles and even fewer record companies had so far chosen to tackle. I would not suggest that the 1980s were the heyday of an ensemble which, over half a century on from its first public appearance back in 1964 is still one of the finest champions of what we might describe as the more challenging of the extended chamber repertory, but certainly those were times when the CD, being in its infancy, was exploiting its potential to convey the intimacy of the chamber idiom through its immediacy of sound. With its wonderful versatility and polished finesse, the Nash Ensemble found a niche which brought it to a wide public through recordings such as this CRD disc of Poulenc, first released 30 years ago.

We are thrust straightaway into their gloriously vibrant and life-affirming playing with a tremendously effervescent account of Le Bal Masqué, a suite of six short movements which, while described as a “Cantata” and setting the surrealist poetry of Max Jacob, uses the voice more as an instrumental timbre than as a deliverer of text. In Thomas Allen, the Nash Ensemble struck gold, for here is a singer every bit their collective equal in versatility and stylistic command. Faithful to every nuance of the score and immaculate in diction, he nevertheless indulges in wonderful displays of Poulenc’s characteristically fleet-footed shifts between the manically ridiculous and the naïvely sentimental. Poulenc felt that Le Bal Masqué represented the very epitome of his style as it was in the early 1930s, while many others identify Le Bestiaire, a setting of six verses by Poulenc’s favourite writer, Guillaume Apollinaire, composed in 1918, as his first true masterpiece. Again Thomas Allen is alert and responsive to every detail of the score, enunciating the words with (mostly) compellingly idiomatic French while the Nash Ensemble decorate the animal-themed texts with appropriately witty detail – not least the weary trudge of the camel or the gently gliding carp in its still pool.

All four works on this disc pre-date the major stylistic change which came over Poulenc’s music following the horrific death of a friend and the re-discovery of his Catholic faith in 1935, and humour and lightness of touch, juxtaposed with passages of cloying sentimentality are the hallmarks of the two purely instrumental works here; the Trio of 1926 and the Sextet of 1932. Both are for piano and wind instruments; the piano, being Poulenc’s own instrument, naturally getting the lion’s share of the material, and always superbly handled by the Nash Ensemble’s brilliant pianist, Ian Brown. Beautifully balanced and detailed – full praise must go to the impressively light and delicate tone John Pigneguy achieves in the athletic horn romps of the Sextet’s first movement - these are still performances which stand comparison with anything that has emerged over the last 30 years.

Marc Rochester



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