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Hyperion Records

CDA66347 - Poulenc: Aubade & Sinfonietta; Hahn: Le Bal de Béatrice d'Este

Recording details: January 1989
St Barnabas's Church, North Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Arthur Johnson
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: June 1989
Total duration: 63 minutes 20 seconds

'A scintillating recording debut… in admirably off-the-beaten-track repertory' (The Observer)

Poulenc: Aubade & Sinfonietta; Hahn: Le Bal de Béatrice d'Este
Molto vivace  [5'26]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Although Francis Poulenc and Reynaldo Hahn were born twenty-five years apart they had a great deal in common. They were very Parisian, even though Hahn first saw the light of day in Venezuela, and were popular guests in fashionable drawing rooms. They adored the theatre and wrote a number of ballets, operas and operettas. They both, too, had what a more polite age euphemistically described as ‘Greek’ tastes, though in Poulenc’s case these went no further than burly policemen, while in Hahn’s they included Marcel Proust, the greatest French writer of the early twentieth century. Like Hahn, Poulenc composed many songs and there is no doubt that he ranks among the finest writers of mélodies. Neither of these two composers wrote much in the way of purely symphonic music. Poulenc’s Sinfonietta is a rare example of his ventures into this domain, and the Aubade is typical in that, while technically a concerto for piano and eighteen instruments, it can also be played as a ballet.

Aubade was commissioned by the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles, rich patrons of the time, and first performed at a fancy dress party they gave with their customary lavishness in 1929. The wispy scenario is inspired by the plight of Diana, the ‘huntress chaste and fair’ of classical legend, who is condemned to eternal chastity. Horns and trumpets create a rustic atmosphere and introduce Diana. She is consumed with a burning passion and awakens each day to a reminder of her gloomy fate. Her wistful ‘Rondeau’ develops into a fortissimo of anguished despair. When her ladies-in-waiting have prepared her toilette to a mercurial ‘Presto’ she dances a ‘Variation’, delightfully Mozartian in flavour – as it should be since Poulenc, snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, steals the melody from one of the divertimenti. After her despair has burst out again into an ‘Allegro féroce’ an adagio concludes the action. She walks away accompanied by a misty woodwind phrase and is lost sight of among the trees. Her arm is glimpsed waving a last farewell as the piano intones a slow succession of chords. The sun comes out and a sharp staccato chord brings down the curtain.

The galant style of Aubade conceals a strain of pessimism; however impertinent the wit, however frisky the rhythm, a feeling of sadness persists. There are passages of exquisite melancholy which reflect a longing that will never be assuaged. Poulenc the jester, the playboy, here shows the more pensive side of his Janus-like character. The Sinfonietta has no such programme and is a light-hearted jeu d’esprit. In June 1947 Poulenc wrote from London to his friend Darius Milhaud: ‘I’ve had a good spring this year. Now I’m about to write a Sinfonietta for orchestra for the BBC Third Programme.’ Eighteen months later he was writing, from Boston this time, that ‘the Sinfonietta went very well in London’. It had its first performance on 24 October 1948, in a broadcast by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Roger Désormière. An impetuous ‘Allegro con fuoco’, occasionally fanning out into mellow, long-breathed tunes, leads to a ‘Molto vivace’ that recalls unmistakably the finale of Les Biches and is none the worse for that. The ‘Andante cantabile’, gentle and flowing, is succeeded by a farewell movement that scurries along to a breathless conclusion.

Like Poulenc’s Sinfonietta, Reynaldo Hahn’s Le Bal de Béatrice d’Este has no story attached to it. He wrote the piece in 1905 when he was thirty. (Or was he thirty-one then? A certain coquetry always made him claim to be one year younger than the age given on his birth certificate.) While still a boy at the Conservatoire he had composed his most famous song, the Mendelssohnian Si mes vers avaient des ailes, and he soon became a darling of the salons. There, a cigarette dangling from his lips, the ash drooping in a fine arc, he accompanied himself at the piano while he sang his own mélodies – that type of song as characteristically French as the Lied is German. With Marcel Proust, the great passion of his life, he wrote Portraits de peintres, a series of musical pieces intended as a background to the declamation of poems by Proust in honour of the artists they admired. It was Hahn who suggested to Proust the famous petite phrase which recurs symbolically throughout À la recherche du temps perdu and which is none other than a haunting theme from Saint-Saëns’s D minor violin sonata.

Hahn knew everyone in the beau monde as well as in English high society. A particular friend was the Duchess of Manchester at whose home he played during a reception once for King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. When the King had gone off for a game of bridge, the Queen begged Hahn and the orchestra to play again an earlier item she had very much enjoyed. This was Le Bal de Béatrice d’Este, a suite for wind instruments, two harps and piano. Typical of the composer’s liking for unusual combinations, it is dedicated to his old master Saint-Saëns and evokes an evening in the palazzo of an Italian noblewoman. The seven movements include dance measures with archaic titles, among them a ‘Lesquercade’, a ‘Courante’ and a ‘Romanesque’, all sweetly nostalgic and instilled with the atmosphere of a Milanese court that vanished three centuries ago. What, one wonders, was ‘Léda et l’oiseau’ doing among these innocent pastiches? Subtitled ‘Intermède Léonardesque’, it implies that the encounter between Leda and her bird must have been a more discreet affair than Leonardo seems to have suggested.

James Harding © 1989

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