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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Chamber Music, Vol. 2
Suite française d’après Claude Gervaise for cello and piano, FP 80 (1935/1953) [13:18]
Sérénade d’après la huitiéme des chansons Gaillardes for cello and piano, FP 42 (1925-26) (arr. Maurice Gendron) [2:38]
L’Invitation au château for clarinet, violin, and piano, FP 138 (1947) [23:52]
Un Joueur de flute berce les ruines for flute, FP 14 [1:17]
Villanelle for piccolo and piano, FP 74 (1934) [2:27]
Deux Mélodies for baritone and piano, FP 162 (1956) [3:09]
La Travail du Peintre for baritone and piano, FP 161 (1956) [12:47]
Eva-Maria May (piano); Martin Rummel (cello); Corinna Desch (violin); Andreas Schablas (clarinet); Ahran Kim (flute, piccolo); Damien Gastl (baritone)
rec. 2018/19, Johannessaal, Schloss Nymphenburg; Bruno-Walter Saal, Staatsoper Munich; Rubinsteinsaal, Steinway-Haus, Munich

It has been over four years since Vol. 1 in this series of Poulenc chamber music appeared. Michael Cookson welcomed that disc of works, which were recorded in 2014 and 2015 and included such masterpieces as the Flute Sonata and Violin Sonata (review). This second volume, while not containing any piece quite on that level, has much music to delight the listener.

First off is the well-known Suite française that I got to know through playing the version for piano. I always assumed that it was the original, but it was in fact arranged by the composer from the version for winds, harpsichord, and drum. Poulenc transcribed the edition for cello and piano presented here for Pierre Fournier. In some ways I prefer it to the other versions. The suite was modeled after a collection of dances by the French Renaissance composer Claude Gervaise. There are seven movements, contrasting fast and slow pieces: Bransle de Bourgogne, Pavane, Petite marche militaire, Complainte, Bransle de Champagne, Sicilienne, and Carillon. This version is especially good in that it treats the work as a true duo with the piano and cello alternating primo and secondo parts, so that both instruments can share the limelight. The performance here is very fine, though I would love to hear Fournier’s interpretation—he was my favourite twentieth-century cellist for much of the cello literature. The Suite française is followed by a brief Sérénade in an arrangement by cellist Maurice Gendron, taken from the song cycle Chansons gaillardes. This beautiful transcripion reminded me of the Sicilienne from Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Next on the CD is the longest work, L’Invitation au château, according to the timing. Actually, the music, divided into three acts, consists of short dance movements and includes waltzes, a tango, gavotte, tarantella, and polka. Some barely last a few seconds and there seems to be little continuity in this “suite.” The playwright Jean Anouilh requested Poulenc to supply a single waltz for his play. Instead, the composer provided much more music that captures the flavour of the salon—in this case the Moulin Rouge. The scoring for clarinet, violin, and piano is effective and individual dances are memorably tuneful. The performance here is excellent, with especially fine playing by clarinetist Andreas Schablas.

The programme concludes with two sets of songs for baritone, but preceding those are a couple of very brief wind pieces. Un Joueur de flute berce les ruines, whose title is nearly as long as the music, was discovered only ten years ago and reflects Poulenc’s admiration for woodwinds. It is scored for solo flute and is a haunting, almost seductive piece in its feeling of longing. The other, the Villanelle for piccolo and piano, is characteristic of the composer and appeared in a collection for the instrument that includes works by Milhaud, Roussel, Ibert, and Auric. Both of these works have been recorded before. Ahran Kim can hold her own with the best of them.

Deux Mélodies and La Travail du Peintre normally appear on discs devoted to Poulenc’s vocal music. One doesn’t automatically think of them as chamber music, but they nonetheless fit well in this programme. Poulenc wrote songs throughout his life and the ones here are typical of his oeuvre. The first of Deux Mélodies is La souris (The Mouse), less than a minute long, is based on a poem by Apollinaire, from his Le Bestiaire, while the second song, Nuage (Cloud), is more than twice the length. Both are lyrical and suit baritone Damien Gastl’s voice well. La Travail du Peintre is a cycle of seven songs depicting the contemporary painters, Picasso, Chagall, Braque, Gris, Klee, Miró, and Villon. Poulenc was inspired to compose these songs through his correspondence with Paul Éluard. They contain a variety of moods reflecting the individual artists from lively and dramatic to melancholy and sad. Gastl does them justice for the most part and his French intonation sounds natural, as he hails from Strasbourg. He is at his best when singing softly, whereas he can be histrionic in some of the dramatic songs, such as Picasso and Klee. Both these and Deux Mélodies have been recorded by sopranos, as well as baritones. Based on these performances, Gastl does not pale in comparison with such renowned baritones as François Le Roux and Gilles Cachemaille.

While none of the chamber works on this disc rise to the level of Poulenc’s duo sonatas, Trio for Piano, Oboe, and Bassoon, or the Sextet for Piano and Winds, they are enjoyable and receive fine performances here by all concerned. It is an especial bonus to have the two song sets included, too, making for a quite attractive programme. The recorded sound is very good. The CD booklet contains short descriptions of the works and longer ones of the performers. However, Paladino earns a black mark for not including any song texts.

Leslie Wright

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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