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Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Clarinet Concerto [24:53]
Tema con Variazioni [8:39]
Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano [23:21]
Dmitri Ashkenazy (clarinet)
Yvonne Long (piano)
Ada Meinich (viola), Bernd Glemser (piano)
Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph-Matthias Mueller
rec. Sept. 1992, Aula Cher, Sarnen, Obwalden, Switzerland (Tema con Variazioni); 19 April 2016, Alte Kirche Fautenbach, Achern, Germany (Trio); 28 May 1995, Corbett Auditorium, College of Music, Cincinnati (Concerto)

This is a feel-good CD on two counts. The music is so captivatingly charming and the playing is so unutterably good.

Was there ever a composer in the last century more gifted in writing for woodwind instruments than Jean Françaix? Everything he wrote, whether solo, chamber or orchestral, seemed so ideally suited to woodwind that it is little wonder that his music remains a cornerstone of the woodwind repertory 20 years after his death – a period during which we would normally expect any composer’s light to dim in the public consciousness until revived by a centenary or two. Here we have a CD devoted to works for clarinet in various settings (and, in this recording, in various countries and various centuries) and played by one of the great clarinet players of our time.

All the hallmarks of the Françaix style are here in full measure. Jaunty, cheerfully uplifting movements, often carrying his trademark tempo indications (allegrissimo, prestissimo, scherzando) are juxtaposed with sentimental slow movements which keep emotion at arm’s length and simply relish the propensity of these instruments to create long, mellifluous lines. Indeed, so distinctive and personal is the Françaix idiom that his music runs the risk of all sounding a bit the same. But his innate ear for colour and delicate effect - one notices the delicate, glittering piano introduction to the last movement of the Trio - ensures that actually it always sounds fresh and original. Humour is never far from the surface, and the almost comedic changes of speed, musical direction and texture keep the listeners on their toes every bit as much as the players.

Son of such an eminent musical father, it is little wonder that Dmitri Ashkenazy impresses most by the musicality of his playing rather than his virtuosity. But the technical challenges of this music are so deftly handled that he is clearly an extraordinarily gifted player. Evoking the jazz characteristics of the clarinet, particularly in the Trio, Françaix sends the instrument up and down its register, and Ashkenazy runs across its huge range with an athleticism which is as astonishing as it is effective.

The four-movement Concerto dates from 1968 and sets off on a jaunty journey in which the clarinet is never allowed any real respite. Rapid passages, chattering ideas and extraordinary leaps across the range are all masterfully controlled by Ashkenazy, who still conveys a wonderfully impish sense of humour, not least in the marvellously throw-away ending to the first movement’s first subject and the extraordinarily mischievous cadenza passages. There is a glorious moment in the finale [5:29] where the clarinet passes up so high that its note is imperceptibly handed on to the piccolo.

English readers of a certain vintage will remember with great affection Jack Brymer, who declared the Concerto unplayable until such time as “the instrument has developed further or the human hand has changed”. Even the composer knew it stretched players beyond their limits, writing of the work that “it is like an acoustical aerobatics show” (which explains the delightful CD cover picture) “with loops, spins, and quite frightening dives for the soloist”. If this frightens Ashkenazy, he is clearly a man who likes to live dangerously – he does not so much take risks here as positively revel in them.

Whatever and whoever the Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra might have been in 1995 (and do I seem to recall a wave of strikes hitting US orchestra back then – or was that yesterday?), they certainly pulled together to support Ashkenazy with some gloriously nimble playing, superbly directed by Christoph-Mathias Mueller.

The charming set of Variations, twisting itself around in complex but always light-hearted rhythmic contortions – not unlike a trio of circus clowns - and lurching with complete insouciance into moments of rich sentimentality (which Ashkenazy suggests in his booklet notes, show an introspective character) finds Ashkenazy perfectly paired with pianist Yvonne Long.

Both the Concerto and the Variations were recorded more than 20 years ago, but this CD includes a much more recent recording of the Trio, made in April 2016. The Trio has few commercial recordings, which is surprising given its arresting musical qualities. This is, by any standards, an outstanding performance in which Ashkenazy is joined by pianist Bernd Glesmer and violist Ada Meinich, both of whom clearly share his affection for the work’s jazz-infused acrobatics.

Marc Rochester



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