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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet, Op. 100 [17:33]
Flute Sonata, Op. 164 [12:07]
Oboe Sonata, Op. 185 [13:44]
Clarinet Sonata, Op. 184 [13:34]
Trio for Bassoon, Oboe and Piano [12:07]
Ensemble Confoederatio
rec. 2019, Stadhaus, Winterthur, Switzerland
MDG 90321526 SACD [69:05]

I never tire of the music of Francis Poulenc, and I doubt I ever will. There is a real sense of fun that runs through most of it, and these pieces are no different in their ability to bring a smile to my face. This is why I have ended up with, some might probably think, too may recordings of his chamber music, but I beg to differ. Each version offers differing perspectives on this wonderfully jolly and entertaining music.

The disc opens with the exuberant Sextet. It had a long gestation: it was not completed until 1939, some eight years since Poulenc put down the first sketches. Composed in three movements, it has a moto theme that appears in each of them, if sometimes a little disguised. The performance is first-rate. It stands up well against the Nash Ensemble’s recording (Hyperion CDA 67255/6) or Pascal Rogé and friends (Decca 475 7097). This is a bright start to the disc, with nice contributions from the ensemble’s horn player Lionel Pointet.

There follows the ever-popular Flute Sonata. The Decca recording is let down by Patrick Gallois’s audible breathing; Philippa Davies of the Nash Ensemble gives a much smoother account. I am glad to say that Rute Fernandes, the Co-Principal Flute of the Philharmonia Zurich, offers the listener a first-rate performance. She effortlessly switches with great panache from the mellow yet bittersweet central movement to the upbeat, almost jocular final movement.

Both the Oboe Sonata and the Clarinet Sonata were composed in 1962. The former opens with a lilting Élégie section where the oboe sings. Maria Sournatcheva, an oboist on the “Widmung” disc (MDG 903 2073-6), plays equally beautifully. Unusually, Poulenc places the fastest of the three movements in the centre, flanked by two slowish movements. He describes the final movement as “…a sort of liturgical chant”. Sournatcheva homes in on the spirit of this sonata. She produces a performance which is up there with the best.

The Clarinet Sonata changes the movement structure again: it is fast-slow-fast. Sérgio Pires and Bemjamin Engeli give us a spirited performance whose timing is around the middle between those of Richard Hosford with Ian Brown of the Nash Ensemble, and Michel Portal with Pascal Rogé on Decca. Pires’s tone is a bit more secure than Portal’s.

The disc ends on a high with the Trio for Bassoon, Oboe and Piano. Poulenc once said “I write what sings to me”, and the opening Lent section of the first movement certainly has a songlike feel to it. The players manage effortlessly the transition to the rollicking Presto section. I particularly like the way Poulenc has a section in the Andante middle movement of the Trio where the bassoon and the oboe seem to be having a conversation, ably supported by the piano. There are flashes of brilliance as all three play at the same time to create a wonderful effect. In the finale, Maria Sournatcheva, bassoonist Axel Benoit and pianist Benjamin Engeli have great fun as they produce an exciting conclusion to the Trio and the disc as a whole.

These are magnificent performances, among the best, sometimes the best. Some of the Nash Ensemble’s versions, and some of those by Pascal Rogé and friends, winningly stand the ravages of time. This disc does not quite topple my favourites, but it may be ideal if one does not have any recording of these buoyant and fun works of Poulenc. The recorded sound is very good, as are the booklet notes, making this a very enjoyable and attractive disc that any self-respecting Poulenc fan will not want to be without.

Stuart Sillitoe

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