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L’esprit des six
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sonata for Clarinet in B-Flat & Piano, FP 184 (1962) [13:24]
Sonata for Clarinet & Bassoon in D Major, FP 32a (1922) [8:08]
Sonata for Two Clarinets (in B flat and A), FP 7 (1918) [6:38]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Sonatine for Clarinet & Piano, Op. 100 (1927) [10:05]
Duo Concertant for Clarinet & Piano, Op. 351 (1956) [6:22]
Caprice for Clarinet & Piano in B-Flat, Op. 335 (1954) [2:13]
Georges AURIC (1899-1983)
Imaginées III for Clarinet in B-Flat & Piano (1971) [6:24]
Germaine TAILLEFERRE (1892-1983)
Arabesque for Clarinet in B-Flat & Piano (1973) [3:12]
Sonata for Solo Clarinet (1957) [5:58]
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1985)
Sonatine for Clarinet in A & Piano, H. 42 (1921-2) [6:02]
Davide Bandieri, Calogero Presti (clarinet)
Guillaume Herpsberger (piano)
Axel Benoit (bassoon)
rec. 2018, Studio Piano et Forte, Perugia, Italy
CLAVES 50-1804 [69:24]

This disc is offered as ‘The spirit of the six,’ the six being the group of largely French composers who were briefly associated under the aegis of Jean Cocteau for a few years after the first World War. However, I have to say that this disc gets off to a somewhat shaky start as a look at the detailed listing will show that only five composers are represented, Louis Durey being absent. The common thread is that all the works here are for the clarinet, usually with piano, but occasionally on its own or with another instrument.

Poulenc is probably the best-known composer here. He did indeed start with light-hearted works, reacting against both impressionism and Wagner, but his religious faith took him into darker places, and his vocal music, including his opera Dialogues des Carmélites, show a deeper sensibility than one might have expected. He is represented by three works. His Clarinet sonata is one of a group of four he planned at the end of his life. He wrote those for flute, oboe and clarinet but died before writing one for bassoon. This is in three movements, the first and last rather brash but the second showing a gentler side.

The Sonata for clarinet and bassoon comes from forty years earlier and shows great skill in writing for two instruments, each of which can only play a single note at a time, so chords in three parts are impossible. Sometimes the bassoon provides a mock-plodding accompaniment to the clarinet and sometimes they share material in rivalry. It is an ingenious piece.

The sonata for two clarinets is even earlier and shows the influence of Stravinsky’s Firebird. I would have said it also showed the influence of Stravinsky’s Three pieces for solo clarinet, but on checking I find Poulenc’s piece came first. Still, that gives you an idea of what it is like.

Milhaud wrote too much, too fast, so only a handful of works, mostly early, have much currency. His Sonatine, in three movements, is fluent, attractive but oddly unmemorable. It would be useful recital fodder for clarinettists but has little to say. His Duo Concertant of many years later is much better, with material which is both good and varied. This is in one continuous movement but with variations in pace. The final rondo-like section is particularly haunting. The short Caprice is a waltz with a difference and is also a good piece.

Auric is best remembered as a film composer – he wrote the scores for films by Cocteau and also the Ealing comedies, among many others. Imaginées is a late work, a set of six pieces for different instrumental combinations and in a more modernist vein than he had been accustomed to use. (You can get the whole set played by a starry French team on a recent Erato reissue.) There is fast staccato from the clarinet, thumping chords and tinkling effects from the piano, a rather Schoenbergian melodic line from the clarinet, and, at one point, what sounded like a steal from Abîme des oiseaux, the solo clarinet movement from Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps. All this was quite enterprising, but I found the piece unstable and inconsistent in idiom.

Tailleferre has received increasing exposure in recent years and her elegant and charming music is always a pleasure to hear. The Arabesque is rather Ravelian, with a most beguiling main theme, perhaps the most sheerly beautiful piece on the disc. Her sonata for solo clarinet, in three short movements, is mainly serious, with a meditative first movement and a Messiaen-like Andantino. The finale is playful with some virtuosic passages. This was also a rewarding work.

Honegger is probably, along with Poulenc, the most familiar name here. He always seemed rather an anomaly among Les Six, not only in being Swiss rather than French, but also in the seriousness characteristic of most of his best work, such as the second and third symphonies. His three movement sonata, though dating from his time with Les Six, is nevertheless more serious than the comparable works by the others here, as is shown by the fugal passage in the first movement and the eloquent slow movement, though the finale does manage to be lighthearted.

Davide Bandieri plays all these works with great assurance and a superb technique. He belongs to the perky rather than the soulful end of clarinet playing, though he can refine down his tone for gentle passages. His pianist, Guillaume Herpsperger, is a good partner, and also often has a good deal of complicated writing to cope with. The two colleagues who join them for two of the works fit in well. The recording is rather close, but clear and not lacking in resonance. It needed a little taming. The sleevenote, in three languages, includes anecdotes about the composers and biographies of the artists but says not one word about the pieces on the disc.

I think Claves missed a trick in not representing the sixth member of the group, Louis Durey. His Divertimento for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, is about the same length as Milhaud’s disappointing Sonatine and would have been a better choice. (You can hear it on another disc of chamber works by Les Six, by Arundo-Donax on Azzurro Music.)

This will probably appeal most to clarinettists, but it offers a good cross-section of what (most of) Les Six can do.

Stephen Barber

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