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Hyperion Records

CDA67489 - Françaix: Orchestral Music

Recording details: March 2004
Ulster Hall, Belfast, United Kingdom
Produced by Chris Hazell
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: March 2005
Total duration: 62 minutes 33 seconds

'The playing throughout is sensitive and fully attentive to the varied rhythms, while the sound is clear and bright, bringing out Françaix's imaginative writing for individual instruments, especially the woodwind. The CD will not change opinions of Françaix; but it will surely suit those who already appreciate his style' (Gramophone)

'Thierry Fischer seems totally attuned to Françaix's idiom, and the engineers have captured the excellent acoustics of Belfast's Ulster Hallto colourful effect. The Ulster Orchestra plays with wit, point and vitality: it can rarely if ever have sounded better on record' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This is the third Françaix CD from Thierry Fischer and the Ulster Orchestra. I'll extend the praise they've already received from other reviewers by saying that these performances are polished and idiomatic. With their rhythmic point and colour, they invite the dance. The engineering is well balanced and not hyped' (International Record Review)

'It's the conductor Thierry Fischer's third Françaix disc with the Ulster Orchestra, and the players now have the composer's style off to a T' (The Times)

'The musicians are excellent, not merely in instrumental sections or as a balanced ensemble, but in their respective solo passages as well. They shine in providing intimate, strongly characterised work that brings the tenements of Les demoiselles de la nuit to life. Combine this with competent liner notes and spacious sound, and you have an album that should please older fans of Françaix, and make new ones out of a fresh generation of listeners' (Fanfare, USA)

Orchestral Music

The third in our series of orchestral recordings featuring music by Jean Françaix perfectly encapsulates the world of this humorous, civilized and quintessentially French composer.

Le roi nu, the fourth of Françaix’s nine ballet scores, paraphrases the story (by Hans Christian Andersen) of the emperor who allows himself to be fooled into parading around the court totally naked—pompous fanfares, witty orchestral asides and louche polkas abound as the action gently mocks the misguided monarch.

Les demoiselles de la nuit is an altogether more moody affair (a facet even reflected at the Paris premiere when a young Margot Fonteyn initially refused to wear the required cat mask—‘it wouldn’t be asked of me at Covent Garden!’—to be met with a threat from the surrealist set-designer to burn down the theatre unless she complied) involving a beautiful young kitten in love with a (human) violinist who falls to his death cavorting on the rooftops. Needless to say, our genteel composer does not allow the gloom to persist, and the resulting ballet was rewarded with extended runs in London, Paris and New York.

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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 in Paris, ‘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 priceless 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 two ballet scores presented on this disc. Such economy of means and precision of expression are the prime requisites for a humorist and a wit, such as the composer reveals himself to be in every page of these delightful scores, each in its way a shining example of his gentle and civilized art.

Françaix composed nine ballets in all. Le roi nu (‘The naked king’), a ballet in four tableaux based on Hans Christian Andersen’s well known tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, was his fourth – and, when premiered in 1936, the most successful he had yet been involved in. Shortly before his death the great impresario Serge Diaghilev had the idea of staging a ballet on this theme, and he bequeathed the idea to the dancer and choreographer Serge Lifar. Following Diaghilev’s death, Lifar became premier danseur of the Paris Opéra Ballet, whose reputation had declined since the Victorian era. By 1933 he had become its director and professor of dance, carrying on the Diaghilev tradition and staging ballet in its own right rather than as part of opera productions. Thus it was Lifar who commissioned Françaix to write the score for Le roi nu while he provided the scenario. The music was composed in 1935 and the ballet was staged at the Paris Opéra the following year, produced by Lifar, who was also the principal dancer, with a cast that included Lifar’s protégée, the ballerina Yvette Chauviré. Le roi nu is generally considered one of Lifar’s most notable productions; in it he employed archaic dance-steps and formalized postures to satirize the stupidity and obsequiousness of the royal court. In his scenario he enlarged the cast-list by creating a young queen with a secret lover. He also added a twist to Andersen’s tale: once the subterfuge of the villainous tailor has been revealed to him, the king is so impressed by his ability to pull the wool (or in this case, the lack of any wool at all) over the eyes of his subjects that he makes the tailor his new prime minister!

Despite the division into four tableaux, the action is pretty well continuous. The pompous fanfare with which the ballet begins returns at various points as a kind of ritornello, and various principal themes are ingeniously varied at different points in the action. The ‘dance of the three tailors’ before the palace immediately after the introduction already demonstrates Françaix’s vivid and witty orchestration which is a notable feature throughout, and also the strong influence of Stravinsky – the best possible model for a 1930s ballet, of course, and one strongly advocated by Françaix’s teacher Nadia Boulanger – that is palpable throughout the score. Not the least of the ballet’s delights is the mysterious and magical atmosphere conjured up as the tailor tells the king of the marvellous material, of unsurpassed fineness and delicacy, from which he proposes to make the new clothes. This foreshadows the diaphanous – one might almost say naked – orchestration, confined to a few solo instruments, when the king finally dons his imaginary attire. The celebratory ball in the throne room is in Françaix’s best opéra-bouffe manner, its louche polkas proceeding with a fine swing until the action is brought to a halt by the exclamation of a child, ‘Mais le roi est nu!’, triggering the panic-stricken (but sparkling) coda as unwelcome reality breaks in upon the Court.

Twelve years were to pass before Françaix wrote his next ballet. Whereas Le roi nu is a cheerful burlesque, Les demoiselles de la nuit (‘The ladies of the night’) – described as a ‘cat-ballet in one act’ – is an altogether moodier, though eventually quite as witty, affair. This work was written to a scenario by Jean Anouilh and choreographed by Roland Petit, who staged the first performance with his own company, Les Ballets de Paris de Roland Petit, with elaborate designs and costumes by the leading woman surrealist Leonor Fini, at the Théâtre Marigny on 21 May 1948. A leading member of the company was the young Margot Fonteyn, who danced the part of the white kitten, Agathe. She at first refused to wear a cat mask on the grounds that she would never do such a thing at Covent Garden. In retaliation, Fini threatened to set the theatre on fire, and Petit finally persuaded Fonteyn to wear the mask because, he claimed, Fini was capable of anything! In the event the ballet was a resounding success, and was subsequently staged in London and New York.

Here the action is set among a decadent society of cats, whose activities underground seem a mirror for the human life in the city above. The alpha male, called Baron de Grotius, intends to wed the frivolous and gorgeous white kitten, Agathe; but she falls in love with a human violinist who has lost himself in the cellars. Through the love of a human, she becomes human herself, and they flee the wedding celebrations and make their home above ground in a poor garret, where they have difficulty paying the rent. Agathe finds herself falling back into her feline nature – she kills a caged bird, and when the Baron traces her she leaves her sleeping lover and follows the other cats. The violinist tries to chase them over the rooftops but falls to his death; Agathe returns, finds his body and curls up beneath it ‘in animal devotion and human love’.

This is certainly a more varied ballet than Le roi nu, with episodes of romance and pathos, while the humorous numbers have a delicacy and stylishness appropriate to their feline subject (not to mention the frequent occurrences of ‘miaow’-type glissandi in the strings). The melancholic nocturne that opens the ballet, with its evocative horn solo, is one of the most memorable pages in Françaix’s output, and this music returns as an interlude two-thirds of the way through the score. Other highlights include the rapid, gossamer-light flute solo in ‘Parsuite de la souris’, so evocative of the breathless flight of the mouse hunted by the cats; the exquisitely soulful oboe solo that characterizes Agathe’s entrance; and the pomposity of the Baron, in whose music we may recognize several brief quotations from other composers, such as the Rakóczy March. The final Pas de deux, as the cat lovers prepare for their nocturnal nuptials, and the elegiac final bars, radiate a quality of tenderness that many human protagonists might envy.

Calum MacDonald © 2005

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