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Hyperion Records

CDA67255/6 - Poulenc: The Complete Chamber Music

Recording details: January 1999
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: November 1999
Total duration: 145 minutes 25 seconds


'An altogether first-class collection of Poulenc's very individual chamber music output played with real sensitivity … .outstanding performances. The whole issue wins my enthusiastic recommendation: it bids fair to become the undisputed yardstick for the future.' (Gramophone)

'A set which will surely and deservedly be popular.' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Thoroughly excellent' (The Observer)

'Entrancing. It's hard to select the choicest treasures from this jewel box of Poulenc's most witty and vivacious, hauntingly melodic and touchingly heartfelt music, especially when it is played with such effervescence and devotion as here. The two masterpieces are the Sextet for Piano and Winds (1932) and the delectable "Mozartian" Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon, played with dashing elan and soulful lyricism by the pianist Ian Brown and the Nash's brilliant wind principals. Richard Watkins's long-breathed account of the moving Elégie in memoriam Dennis Brain (1957) and Paul Watkins's noble-toned playing of the Cello Sonata (1940/48) are exceptional. But there is rapture, elation, zany high spirits in all of this music, dazzlingly played by the Nash Ensemble. Buy, buy, buy!' (The Sunday Times)

'It would be hard to imagine more consistently on-target presentations of Poulenc’s chamber music or more appropriate sound reproduction. Highly recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

'Thirteen pieces lovingly brought to life by the Nash Ensemble. For once, the word 'jewel-box' for the CD container sounds about right.' (BBC CD Review)

'Those who treasure performances of this music should hear this recording to discover the insights which the very best of today's musicians bring to these scores' (Classical Express)

The Complete Chamber Music
Presto  [1'54]
Rondeau: Animé  [1'24]
Lent – Presto  [5'08]
Andante con moto  [4'41]
Rondo: Très vif  [3'07]
Presto giocoso  [3'33]

This collection of the complete chamber music of Poulenc shows the varying styles that he employed. From the jazzy, bitonal passages of the Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon and the Sonata for Horn, Trumpet and Trombone which has been described as 'Pergolesi with his wig awry' (Roger Nichols, Grove) to the profound beauty of his last three sonatas for wind. All are extremely accessible.

The Nash Ensemble gave a series of concerts of Poulenc's music at the Wigmore Hall earlier this year to great critical acclaim and Hyperion are delighted to be able to present this wonderful collection on this, Poulenc's centenary year.

Other recommended albums
'Milhaud: Music for two pianists' (CDA67014)
Milhaud: Music for two pianists
Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA67014  Archive Service  
'Françaix: L'heure du berger, Divertissement, Clarinet Quintet & À huit' (CDA67036)
Françaix: L'heure du berger, Divertissement, Clarinet Quintet & À huit
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67036 
'Handel: Alexander Balus' (CDA67241/2)
Handel: Alexander Balus
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'Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos' (CDD22001)
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'Xenakis: Choral Music' (CDA66980)
Xenakis: Choral Music
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Francis Poulenc was the Benjamin and enfant terrible of Les Six, the erstwhile group of Parisian composers who were supposed to be in reaction against the more personally expressive or picturesque music of their seniors. So his early work often reflected the café-concert, music-hall and circus. On the other hand, he soon showed that he was not devoid of heart, even if he remained short of musical breath and, like his elderly friend Erik Satie, tended to write music in short, repeated fragments. Like his other musical mentor, Stravinsky – who found him his first publisher – Poulenc composed at the piano, and his pianistic fluency is evident in the keyboard parts of his chamber music. Similarly, his own shortness of musical breath made him a naturally considerate composer of wind music. Yet he struggled and succeeded with several large-scale works which, in the year of his centenary, have reached as wide an audience as the piano pieces, songs and wind music.

Here Poulenc’s chamber music provides thirteen items: sixteen tracks on CD1 and eighteen on CD2, all ‘easy listening’, and beguiling in contrasts if heard seriatim. But the sequence is not presented chronologically. These works, written between 1918 and 1962, from Poulenc’s twentieth to his penultimate year, are by a composer with a wealthy background who always earned his keep by music. The dedications of these thirteen works are typical of a musician much loved by a wide circle of friends.

Three sonatas for wind instruments alone are the earliest works here, each with three short movements: two brisk ones enclosing an Andante. The first was composed in 1918 for two clarinets; the second in 1922 for clarinet and bassoon; and the third, also in 1922, for horn, trumpet and trombone.

In 1924 Poulenc was at work on his Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano. It was dedicated to Manuel de Falla, the Spanish composer who knew Paris well and also shared Poulenc’s London publisher. Completed at Cannes in 1926, it was, like all the music that occupied his thoughts for any length of time, a subject on which he kept his friends informed. He referred to the Trio in writing to André Schaeffner, André Cœuroy, Charles Koechlin and Igor Stravinsky, acknowledging the latter’s advice. The Trio, Poulenc’s first real success in the field of chamber music, retaining its youthful verve, was first played at the concert he gave with his friend Georges Auric in Paris on 2 May 1926.

Whilst the composition of more extended movements like those of the Trio was often spread over a number of years, smaller pieces posed Poulenc fewer problems. One such was the Villanelle for piccolo and piano, printed in Pipeaux 1934 – a brainchild of the indefatigable Australian Louise Dyer whose Oiseau-Lyre Paris publications contained seven similar trifles for pipes by Parisian composers of the time.

Begun in 1932, the Sextet for piano and wind instruments was not completed until 1939. Its basic form is that of the Trio. A motto theme, first heard for wind alone, recurs in all three movements. In the central Divertissement, a lyrical slow movement and its modified repetition enclose a rather perky middle section. The finale roams chromatically in many and distant keys, but ends in ten bars of an adulterated C major.

Poulenc wrote his two string sonatas in wartime. The first, a Sonata for violin and piano, was begun in 1942, completed in 1943 and published in 1944, dedicated to the memory of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (1899-1936) – a victim of the Spanish Civil War. It was first played in Paris on 21 June 1943 by the young Ginette Neveu and Poulenc. Between a ‘fiery’ Allegro and a ‘tragic’ Presto of Stravinskian parentage comes an Intermezzo evoking guitar music.

The Sonata for cello and piano was sketched in 1940 but not completed until 1948. It was first played in the Salle Gaveau in Paris on 18 May 1949 by the composer and the joint dedicatee, Pierre Fournier, who also played a significant role in the writing of the cello part. This is most evident in the central Cavatine and dance-like Ballabile, but in all four movements the piano usually announces and the cello decorates the essential line.

Composed in 1962, Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata is the second of the series of three woodwind sonatas which he wrote in the last years of his life. Although missing from the first edition of the published score, its inscription is to the memory of his friend Arthur Honegger. The opening ‘Allegro tristamente’ is full of Poulenc’s familiar musical fingerprints, of which the clarinet’s initial gruppetto and the piano’s rhythmic punctuations are typical, as is the quiet and steady pulse of the reiterated octave C in the bass, above which the clarinet’s melodic line soon emerges. The second phrase has a contrasted dotted inflection. Their juxtapositions and alternations propel the movement gently forward. There is a brief backward glance at the opening page before a section marked ‘Très calme’ in which the clarinet’s rocking ostinato heralds the return of previously heard material and a hushed ending.

The clarinet begins the central Romanza with a four-note motif and short accompanied recitative before first suggesting and then settling down to its main melody, marked ‘Très doux et mélancholique’, in the placid G minor to which several changes of tonal perspective eventually return. Nostalgic sentiments play no part in the animation of the final Allegro which begins and ends in a riotous C major.

The Flute Sonata, the earliest of Poulenc’s four late works for wind, was composed in Cannes between December 1956 and March 1957. It is dedicated to the memory of Mrs Emma Sprague Coolidge, a well-known American patron of contemporary music in the second and third decades of this century. The first performance was given on 18 June 1957 at the Strasbourg Festival by Jean-Pierre Rampal and the composer.

‘Malincolico’ spells out the wistfulness with which Poulenc could inform even an allegro. This one unfolds in E minor and tripartite form. The opening section and its modified reprise are based on the initial theme: its four-note gruppetto, recurring no fewer than fifteen times in the first part, provides a unifying element in the melodic flow. A dotted rhythm characterises the contrasting second section marked ‘Un peu plus vite’. Beginning in F major, this shifts to other keys before a typical dominant thirteenth prepares for a reprise of the first part, though it begins in A minor. There is a brief backward glance at the other material before the initial gruppetto, flickering between major and minor, comes to rest in E major.

The gently ambling pace of the central Cantilena is set by two introductory bars before a characteristically nostalgic melody is unfolded in B flat minor. Except for a few single-bar ritornelli, the flute holds the melodic thread for most of the movement, the piano rarely emerging from its accompanimental role. After several excursions into other tonalities, the initial melody returns in its original key, coming momentarily to rest in the major before ending in the minor.

The finale is in A major, but its short thematic motifs shift kaleidoscopically to many other tonalities. Its brusque progress is interrupted once by a short-lived phrase marked ‘Mélancolique’ – a backward glance, after which the ‘Presto giocoso’ is resumed unflaggingly to its final major chord.

The Sarabande, Poulenc’s only piece for solo guitar, was composed (in March 1960 in New York) for Ida Presti and first published, with fingering by the dedicatee, the following year by Ricordi in a guitar anthology also containing pieces by Auric, Sauguet and other contemporaries.

Composed in 1962, Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata, the last of his three woodwind sonatas, is inscribed to the memory of Serge Prokofiev. Its opening Élégie, marked ‘Paisiblement’, begins with the oboe’s high D, the first note of an introductory four-note phrase. What follows is equally familiar Poulenc: a steady bass line below pulsing harmony with which the piano supports the oboe’s plaint in G, a line informed throughout by the gruppetto that begins it. Then the piano initiates a more second lyrical theme in E flat major, soon adopted by the oboe. A third theme featuring a double-dotted rhythmic motif provides the climax of the movement before the peaceful recapitulation of previous material and a quiet ending.

The central Scherzo, based on B flat, presents an animated 6/8 movement in which pointed rhythms are balanced with smoother motifs, and an arpeggio is altered rhythmically to rock up and down. A slower and more lyrical middle section rises to a climax in the piano part, gradually receding to a dominant close before the toccata-like Scherzo resumes without respite up to a brusque ending.

The final Déploration, marked ‘Très calme’, muses on A flat minor on a chorale-like theme announced by the piano. A ‘verse’ in C minor follows before the oboe sings out the plaint proper above the piano’s quaver pulse, marked ‘monotone’. There are several shifts in tonality before the final page clinches the essentially sad mood of the movement.

The Élegie for horn and piano was composed in 1957 in memory of the famous English horn-player, Dennis Brain. It represents the briefest of a dyed-in-the-wool tonal composer’s flirtation with the 12-tone system. Poulenc had met Schoenberg in the days of Les Six and followed his music with avid interest – as he did that of all his contemporaries – without ever being tempted to emulate him. He was fascinated by Schoenberg’s work and could admire it, but it remained totally foreign to his own musical formation and personality. The years following the Second World War saw a recrudescence of 12-tone activity, and ‘serialism’ became the fashionable musical byword. Poulenc remained an observer. The nearest he allowed his own music to approach it was in this Élegie which begins with the clear enunciation of a 12-note theme by the solo horn. A short and strongly accented ‘Agitato molto’ divides it from the piano’s different arrangement of the disjunct 12-note monody and a transposed return of the agitation. This is all preludial. The Elegy proper maintains a gentle accompanimental pulse of quavers in 3/4 time. Above it, the solo horn’s wide-ranging melisma falls into clearly defined phrases without ever suggesting the initial tone-row. After a momentary reminder of the agitation, the Elegy rises with occasional and unexpected harmonic asperity to a climax from which it gradually recedes. The horn’s final utterance is another unrelated 12-tone sequence ending on the leading-note of the C major harmony on which it is cushioned. Poulenc’s Élégie, qualifying him no more a member of the 12-tone school than Rameau, in whose music, too, a 12-note series may be found, remains essentially tonal.

Felix Aprahamian © 1999

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