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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sextet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano [17:33]
Sonata for flute and piano [12:07]
Sonata for oboe and piano [13:44]
Sonata for clarinet and piano [13:34]
Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano [12:07]
Ensemble Confoederatio
rec. Stadhaus Winterthur, Switzerland, June 2019
MDG 903 2152-6 SACD [69:05]

Francis Poulenc had a special love for wind instruments – particularly woodwind – and blessed them with a large number of chamber works and solo sonatas, unsurpassed in 20th century repertoire. This fine CD is thoughtfully planned, with two ensemble works on either side of the three solo sonatas. Ensemble Confoederatio is, as its name suggests, a group based in Switzerland, comprising talented young musicians who already have impressive careers underway. The results are pretty stunning and hugely enjoyable, especially to anyone who, like me, adores the peculiar, heady mixture which is the music of Poulenc.

There’s no point in concealing the fact that I rate this CD, made last year, very highly indeed. Every one of the five works is given a fine performance, and two are of exceptional quality.

The first of those is the Sextet for piano and wind, which opens the programme. It’s one of Poulenc’s finest instrumental works, and one of his most characteristic. In it, he not only writes beautifully for the six instruments, but also constructs each movement so powerfully that it feels like a much weightier work than its mere 17 minutes might lead you to expect. The frantic outer sections of the first movement enclose a middle section which is utterly magical in a slightly disturbing way. The slow movement enlarges upon that ambivalence; beginning with its blithely Mozartean oboe melody, it eventually ends despondently on a chord of A flat minor. The finale is lively enough, but still cannot banish the bipolarity, and the ending, based on the slow middle part of the first movement, is equivocal. The ensemble play with great character and imagination throughout, and everything is captured in a really outstanding recording. It’s not always realised how very problematic it can be trying to record wind instruments; the oboe and clarinet point forwards, the horn and flute to the side, and the bassoon, upwards and downwards and all over the place! So the engineers have done a top job here.

There are two Portuguese musicians in the ensemble, and one of them, flautist Rute Fernandes, gives a delicious performance of the Flute Sonata, which comes next. Of all the works on this disc, this is the one with the stiffest competition. Distinguished flautists, from Jean-Pierre Rampal, who gave the première, as well as Philippa Davies, Emmanuel Pahud, Emily Beynon (my own personal favourite performance on disc; Beynon has also recorded the fine Lennox Berkeley orchestral arrangement of the sonata), Kenneth Smith, Jeffrey Khaner – and many, many more. So it is a real compliment to say that Fernandes suffers not at all by comparison in this company. Her control right through the range of the instrument, her phrasing and her use of changes of dynamic and colour, all these are musical qualities to relish.

The Oboe Sonata comes next – Poulenc’s final completed work – and another wonderful performance, on the same level as the Sextet. I have never, I don’t think, heard an oboist with greater control than Maria Sournatcheva, the young Russian soloist here. Her sustained pianissimo endings to some of the phrases have to be heard to be believed – literally (almost!) breath-taking. This sonata is a great, tragic work, despite its brevity, and for me is the greatest highlight of the disc.

Another young Portuguese instrumentalist, Sérgio Pires, brings us the Clarinet Sonata next. Again a fine, sensitively musical performance, exploiting well the quixotic character of this piece.

And for the final work, the lovely Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, oboist Maria Sournatcheva is joined by French bassoonist Axel Benoit. And a very fine pair they make, with Benoit’s splendidly focussed and woody tone complimenting his oboe partner’s fine qualities mentioned above. The able pianist throughout the CD is the Swiss chamber musician Benjamin Engeli. Just now and again, he is a tiny bit heavy-handed, as for example at the beginning of the central Andante of the Trio; but he is nimble-fingered enough to deal apparently effortlessly with Poulenc’s often devilishly tricky piano parts. (If you listen to Poulenc’s own recordings of some of these works, you learn that he was no stranger to the wrong note – sometimes fistfulls!).

I hope music-lovers won’t feel that this disc is ‘just’ for wind music aficionados. This is some of the loveliest and most entertaining music of the 20th century, and the performances of these fine musicians do it full justice.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe

Rute Fernandes (flute), Maria Sournatcheva (oboe), Sérgio Pires (clarinet), Lionel Pointet (horn), Axel Benoit (bassoon), Benjamin Engeli (piano)

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