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Hyperion Records

CDA67384 - Françaix: Ballet Music

Recording details: November 2002
Ulster Hall, Belfast, United Kingdom
Produced by Chris Hazell
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: March 2004
Total duration: 56 minutes 57 seconds

'The playing here is absolutely first class: rhythmically taut, clear and bright in texture, with a wide range in dynamics, spaciously but not echoingly recorded' (Gramophone)

'Crisp, stylish performances' (Classic FM Magazine)

'It would be hard to imagine more persuasive perfomances than these nimble accounts by Fischer and his alert Ulster players. Good clean sound, too. Warmly recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

'Music so agreeably appealing needs no further comment from me, and when the performances are as idiomatic and perky as these, captured in such fine sound, the disc becomes self-recommending. Good, clean fun!' (

'The immediacy and brilliance of Hyperion's recording of music by Jean Françaix brings to the three works a wonderful panoply of colour' (Essex Chronicle)

Ballet Music

This new recording of orchestral music by Jean Françaix – personification of the elegant and witty French ‘salon’ ambience – brings us two ballets scores and the Concertino for piano and orchestra, one of the composer’s earliest successes, still one of his best-known compositions, and itself a model of the pithy-yet-polished style Françaix has so come to represent.

The main work on this disc is the ballet score Les malheurs de Sophie, a setting of the eponymous French children’s tale of a naughty little girl, her escapades and misadventures. In three tableaux, Françaix’s score admirably encapsulates the capricious spirit of Sophie as she variously cuts up (and eats) her mother’s goldfish, holds a funeral for a favourite doll, shaves off her eyebrows … All in all the perfect subject-matter for the composer’s own brand of genial invention. Although the suite for wind ensemble the composer subsequently prepared has become something of a repertoire piece, the original orchestral score has remained frustratingly obscure until now.

Les bosquets de Cythère (‘The groves of Cythera’) is Françaix’s development of a tradition which saw composers and poets from Debussy and Poulenc to Watteau and Boucher immortalizing the Bacchanalian, even Priapic, delights of this ‘island of love’. In his updated fantasy world abandoned shepherdesses lie quite happily with the minxes from the notorious Parisian restaurant Chez Maxim and all is couched in an ironic style charmingly blending the manners of a Couperin with those of the Roaring Twenties.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Jean Françaix was born in Le Mans (where his father was Director of the Conservatoire) on 23 May 1912, and received a thorough training in composition from Nadia Boulanger, ‘with results’ – as David Drew once wrote in a celebrated survey of modern French music – ‘that might well be envied by certain of his more renowned elders. His precision of aim is often exemplary.’ In a long life Françaix wrote works in almost every genre, but they are all distinguished on the one hand by a sure technical skill and on the other by an amiable unpretentiousness. That precious gift of ‘precision of aim’ – the ability to say just what needs to be said, no more, no less, in just as many notes as it takes to say it – is well illustrated by the three scores presented on this disc.

Françaix carried off the first prize for piano at the Paris Conservatoire in 1930 and was himself, at the age of twenty-two, the soloist in the premiere of his Concertino for piano and orchestra, which was given in a Lamoureux Concert in Paris on 15 December 1934. This pithy and highly polished work, one of his earliest successes and still one of his best-known compositions, seems an archetypal example of the elegant, witty and tender style that was to serve him well throughout a long composing career. The busy moto perpetuo manner of the first movement is propelled by chattering piano figuration, but the underlying melodic shape of the opening (modelled, it has been claimed, on Czerny’s Study Op 299 No 8, in C major) is varied resourcefully by scalic and broken-chord figures in a brief development that leads to a short climax. Here, as throughout the works on this disc, brevity is the soul of wit – the forms are miniaturized, the music reduced to its simplest essentials. When the piano resumes its figurations it is in the foreign key of B minor, but the music side-slips into the home key before it fades out.

The slow movement is simplicity itself, both in melody and harmony, a poised and serene page of music that repeats itself da capo only to make way for the scherzo, spun out of a perky Gounod-like motif, a little counterpoint, a trumpet tune and twanging cellos. A tiny trio, suggesting a Musette, gives the merest glimpse of Watteauesque pastoral. The return of the minuet leads without a break into the finale. This is a breezy Rondeau in 5/8 time that establishes a distinct kinship to the first movement, with similarly bustling figuration and thematic quips bandied about between the soloist (who here shows the strongest penchant for bravura) and the orchestra. A louche and jazzy trumpet eventually takes up the main tune and the Concertino patters off in high good humour, vanishing on an upward glissando.

The ballet Les malheurs de Sophie (‘The Misfortunes of Sophie’) is loosely based on the book of the same title, published in 1859 and very well known in French children’s literature, by Sophie, Comtesse de Ségur (1799–1874). A prolific author of children’s books, the Countess was born Sophie Rostopchin, and spent her childhood in Russia: Les malheurs de Sophie is a thinly disguised autobiography of her early life, depicting the misadventures of three-year-old Sophie and her five-year-old cousin, Paul. Though she lives an idyllic existence with loving parents in a grand château, the errant Sophie is very far from a model child, entirely different from her well-behaved friends Camille and Madeleine. She takes all sorts of notions into her head (such as over-eating at afternoon tea; general laziness; cutting up and cooking her mother’s pet fish; getting covered in whitewash; breaking her wax doll; staging a funeral for it and burying it; cutting off her eyebrows to improve her appearance, etc.). So she gets into all sorts of scrapes, from which Paul is frequently required to rescue her, though nothing escapes the eagle eye of her mother, who continually makes an example of the little girl to try to teach her better ways – which Sophie finds very unjust.

Françaix’s ballet treatment, to a scenario prepared from the original book by the Russian exile George Flévitsky, was composed in 1935. This was the composer’s third ballet (it was preceded by Scuola di Ballo and Beach, both from 1933) and here at last he found a subject that was ideal for his special brand of genial and even childlike invention. The action is divided into three tableaux, each comprising a sequence of short dances, highly tuneful, beautifully scored and largely carefree in mood. The general air of levity is offset by the tenderness of Sophie’s feelings for Paul, expressed in the third tableau by a Pas de deux. Late in life, Françaix arranged a suite of seven pieces from Les malheurs de Sophie for wind ensemble, which has become something of a repertoire piece among wind-players, but the original ballet score, of ten movements, is very rarely heard.

Les bosquets de Cythère (‘The Groves of Cythera’) does not appear in the catalogue of Françaix’s works as a ballet, but it could very well have been one. This suite of waltzes for orchestra dates from 1946, and might be considered a post-war attempt to recapture the carefree galanterie of French music between the wars. One might also comment that Françaix’s score is firmly in a tradition that goes back – via Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales – to the waltzes of Schubert.

In classical literature the island of Cythera, off Cape Malea in the Peloponnese, was considered the birthplace of Aphrodite. In consequence it was celebrated as the ‘Isle of Love’ whose inhabitants lived a life of paradisal pleasure. Watteau and Boucher depicted goings-on there, and French composers had a more than nodding acquaintance with the place – it is Paris’s destination when he abducts Helen in Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène, it is Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse, and Poulenc sets sail for there in his waltz L’Embarquement pour Cythère, actually composed after Françaix’s suite. But it is clear that, just as Watteau’s paintings put the denizens of Cythera into eighteenth-century dress, so Françaix puts them into that of the twentieth. There may be a smattering of classical figures like the abandoned shepherdess Aminte, but also modern Parisians who have dined at Chez Maxim’s, the famous fashionable restaurant of the Belle Époque and the Roaring Twenties. Indeed the pleasures to be taken in the groves of Cythera may be ambiguous at best, for this stylish and sparkling score is loaded with irony.

The prelude, initially dapper, soon turns breezy and rumbustious, only to vanish unexpectedly. In the gentle movement that follows, depicting the unfortunate Aminte, the influence of Ravel is patent, not least in its melancholy clarinet tune. The ‘consolateur’ of the next movement is distinguished by sublimated music-hall rhythms and sudden rhythmic quips and flourishes. While the exquisite ‘Subtile tendresse’ harks back to the Baroque manners of Couperin, the ensuing ‘Les larcins galants’ is almost a waltz-polka in its ebulliently tripping movement. It is the beautiful temptress from Chez Maxim’s who is the hit of the suite, however. She gets the most extended movement – a sumptuously elegant concert waltz with a decidedly ‘jazz-era’ middle section. The finale, in which the lovers are to be imagined as turning on and pursuing the god of love, works up to a fine explosion of energy before being finally cut short.

Calum MacDonald © 2004

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