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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, FP 43 (1926) [12.43]
Sextet for piano and wind quintet, FP 100 (1932, rev. 1939) [18.08]
Flute Sonata, FP 164 (1956-57) [12.46]
Clarinet Sonata, FP 184 (1962) [14.39]
Oboe Sonata, FP 185 (1962) [14.03]
Ensemble Arabesques
rec. 2018 Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, Germany
FARAO CLASSICS B108103 [72.48]

The Hamburg-based chamber group Ensemble Arabesques, founded in 2011, presents five of Poulenc’s chamber works for wind and piano, written over a thirty-six year period. I enjoyed reviewing their previous release, an album of Holst chamber music, also on Farao Classics.

Much loved by his circle of friends, the Parisian composer Francis Poulenc seemed incapable of writing anything unappealing or uninteresting. Claude Rostand affectionately described his friend Poulenc as “part monk, part rascal.” An exquisite craftsman, Poulenc wrote in most genres: eminently accessible songs, instrumental, chamber, orchestral music and opera, all generally bursting with melody, infused with charm and abounding with a sense of joie de vivre. On the other hand, his powerful opera Dialogues des Carmélites, set against the fear and disorder of the French Revolution, and a number of late sacred choral works, show a more serious side of Poulenc’s personality.

In his sixty-four years, Poulenc produced an outstanding output of chamber music. In the booklet notes we are reminded that ten of his chamber works include wind parts and five of those works are included here. The earliest work on this album is the Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, which Poulenc composed at Cannes in 1926. Dedicated to Manuel de Falla, the score was premièred the same year in Paris and was one of his earliest successes in the field of chamber music. The opening movement, Presto, feels playfully Haydnesque and the central Andante aptly displays the composer’s predilection for melody. A Rondo, the final movement feels high-spirited, even witty, and is played here with remarkable vibrancy.

One of Poulenc’s finest chamber works is his Sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. Written in 1932, the work was premièred the following year with Poulenc himself playing the piano part. In 1939 Poulenc subjected the score to considerable revision. Full of vivid colour, this three-movement score is a highly attractive, elegant work, with Ensemble Arabesques underlining the upbeat and rambunctious nature of the outer movements, which flank a central Andantino that is predominantly lyrical and rather calming. Although this is a very fine account from Ensemble Arabesques, there are two fairly recent, exceptional recordings of the Sextet to which I wish to draw attention. Memorable is the account from Margarita Höhenrieder (piano) and Kammerharmonie der Sächsischen Staatskapelle Dresden, a 2017 release recorded at Klosterbibliothek Polling on Solo Musica. I have high regard, too, for the account from Les Vents Français (Éric Le Sage (piano), Emmanuel Pahud (flute); Paul Meyer (clarinet); François Leleux (oboe); Gilbert Audin (bassoon); Radovan Vlatkovic (horn)) recorded in 2014 at Bavaria Musikstudios, Munich on Warner Classics.

In the last few years of his life, Poulenc embarked on a projected series of sonatas for each individual wind instrument. Upon his death in 1963 he had written only three, for flute, for oboe and for clarinet. The composer dedicated these sonatas to the memory of friends. Written in 1957 for flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, the enduringly popular Flute Sonata is dedicated to the memory of the American music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Rampal introduced the score in June 1957 at the Strasbourg Music Festival. The flautist Eva Maria Thiébaud’s impressive performance reminds me how wonderful this score is. I especially enjoyed her playing of the Allegro malinconico, which abounds with exuberance, while the melodic Cantilena expresses a sense of melting infatuation. Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata was written in 1962, the year before his death. He dedicated the three-movement score to the memory of the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, who had also been a member of the group Les Six. The commissioner of the work, Benny Goodman, gave the première with Leonard Bernstein in April 1963. The clarinet of Gaspare Buonomano sounds quite delightful, with glorious playing of the Romance and the scampering Finale marked Presto giocoso swelling with impish high spirits. Also completed in 1962, the Oboe Sonata bears a dedication to the memory of Sergei Prokofiev. The score was premiered by Pierre Pierlot and Jacques Février in June 1963 at the Strasbourg Festival. Here Nicolas Thiébaud’s oboe sounds strikingly reedy but is no worse for that. I relish the playing of the foot-tapping rhythms of the upbeat Scherzo, reminding me of Prokofiev and described as “a sort of liturgical chant”. The Finale, marked Déploration, is suitably affecting.

Collectively and individually, Ensemble Arabesques provide well-characterized performances of brio and ebullience. For the recording, made at the Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, the engineering team has provided rather close sound – bright, clear and decently balanced. For my taste, the extent of the brightness somewhat robs the instruments of warmth and richness, with the clarinet and reedy oboe sounding best. Benoît Seringe has written the helpful booklet essay. This exceedingly well-performed album of Poulenc chamber works on Farao Classics is certainly worth the investment.

Michael Cookson



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