POULENC: Le Bal masque / Rapsodie negre / Elegie (Naxos: 8.553614)
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Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) CompleteChamber Music, Volume 4
'I am amusician who cannot be labelled'
Francis Poulenc is music itself. I knowno music more direct, more simply expressed or going so unerringly to it itstarget. This praise from his composer friend, Darius Milhaud, is equalled onlyby that from Arthur Honegger, rating him a born composer, who 'amid fashions.
systems, prescriptions, has stayed true to himself with that rare courage whichdemands respect.. A French musician par excellence, Francis Poulenc grew up inthe heart of Paris, between the Madeleine -'my home town'-, the Marais -'myvillage'- and Nogent-sur-Marne - 'my countryside... paradise with its open-aircafes, chip-sellers and dances to the accordion. A precocious pianist, his creativityfed on his inspirer - Debussy, his guide - Stravinsky , Ravel and above allSatie - a great influence, even more aesthetically than musically. Though heconsidered Chabrier a 'grandad', the music-hall enthralled him. Though for manyyears he had to suffer being labelled a superficial and light composer, nothingis farther from the truth. His correspondence collected by Myriam Chimenes andRenaud Machart's magnificent biography both testify to this, noting his music'sboldly up-to-date nature.
From the first work he dared make public,the Rapsodie negre, at the advanced age of nineteen, to the very last,the Sonatas for clarinet and piano and Sonata for oboe and piano, completedshortly before his untimely death, Francis Poulenc devoted himself intermittentlyto chamber music, sometimes following an urge to write, sometimes responding tothe wishes of virtuosi friends. He liked saying. 'To write what seems right tome, when I want to, that is my motto as a composer' (Entretiens). Thesechamber works, cocking a snook at early twentieth century post- romanticpretensions, mischievous, youthful portraits fromthe inter-war period, melancholic, tender images of the post-war spirit, thefinal pages as sparse as a Matisse drawing, give off a bitter-sweet perfume ofChekhovian nostalgia and somewhat false gaiety.
Saturated with the Parisian excitementgreeting the end of the Great War, Poulenc's first chamber works display 'theNew Attitude', the often jocular musical vitality of the circle of friends whichthe critics referred to as the Groupe des Six. The Rapsodie negre, theSonatafor two clarinets, the Piano Sonata for four hands (Naxos8.553613, vol.3), Le Bestiaire and Cocardes were created by a mannot yet twenty, who, responding to a request from his London publisher,described himself thus. 'I was born in Paris on 7th January 1899 ...studiedpiano under Vines and composition almost solely through books because I wasfearful of being influenced by a teacher. I read a lot of music and greatlypondered musical aesthetics.... My four favourite composers, my only masters, areBach, Mozart, Satie and Stravinsky. I don't like Beethoven at all... I loatheWagner... In general, I am very eclectic, but while acknowledging thatinfluence is indispensable, I hate artists who dwell in the wake of themasters... Now, a crucial point, I am not a Cubist musician, even less aFuturist and, of course, not an Impressionist. I am a musicianwithout a label.' (Letter of 6th September 1919, quoted in Correspondence).
Trusting his unfailing instinct, Poulencwas 'like all Latins ... more into harmony than counterpoint' (Entretiens). Havingrefused to join the Schola Cantorum or the Conservatoire, to deepen hisknowledge he turned to Charles Koechlin, a musician more renowned as teacherthan composer. From the years 1921 to 1925, when he concentrated on improving-among other things -his mastery of counterpoint, Poulenc left us a Sonatafor clarinet and bassoon, aSonata for horn, trumpet and trombone (Naxos 8.553613, vol.3) anda Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano (Naxos 8.553611, vo1.1). The chambermusic was definitively associated with wind instruments.
Following a fairly long period when hemoved away from the genre -the only offerings being the superb Le Halmasque, the popular Sextet and the modest 'Villanelle' for pipeand piano (Naxos 8,553611, vol.1), Poulenc set out to write for strings andpiano. The Sonata for cello and piano (Naxos 8,553612, vol,2) was firstwritten in 1940 and reworked in 1948, whilst his Sonata for violin and piano(Naxos 8.553612, vol.2) was first heard in 1943 with Ginette Neveu, Fromthis same period date L' Histoire de Habar and Poulenc's collaborationwith the dramatist Jean Anouilh, providing incidental music for Leocadia andL 'Invitation au chateau (Naxos 8.553615, vol.5), The start ofthe 1950s saw the creation of many pieces for two pianos for les boys, Americanpianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale: L'Embarquementpour Cyth?¿re, a Capriccioin the style of Le Hal masque, the Sonata and the Elegie (Naxos8.553613, vol.3), From 1956 Poulenc returned to wind instruments, with an Elegiefor horn and piano, 'I believe that specialising in the woodwind side isthe solution for me at the moment' he wrote to Pierre Bernac, Like Debussy andSaint-Sa?½ns before him, at the height of his powers he composed three sonatasfor wind instruments and piano. The Sonatas for flute and piano (Naxos8.553611, vol.1), for clarinet and piano (Naxos 8.553612, vol.2) and foroboe and piano (Naxos 8.553611, vol.1) all represent poignant tributes tolost friends.
To celebrate the centenary of Poulenc'sbirth is to celebrate French music stripped of the ideological abstractions socommon in twentieth-century artistic trends, it is to celebrate the freedom tolive and the courage to follow instinct's inner path, it is to celebrate themarriage of poetry freed from the romantic heritage with music enamoured ofFrench classicism, it is to celebrate the union of Stravinsky with Chevalier,of Pelleas with the music-hall, of the Madeleine with the boulevards, ofthe 'monastery and the mob', It also means celebrating the Paris ofApollinaire, Max Jacob, Eluard, Cocteau, Picasso, Dufy, This is a celebrationof friendship transcending differences.
That is why Naxos decided to entrustthese complete works to a team of young French musicians inspired with thecamaraderie seen on Saturday nights when Milhaud, Auric, Tailleferre, Poulenc,Cocteau and so many others gathered to share their latest creations, to eat,drink and have a good laugh. But good spirits are not enough: this entireproject, from conception to last recording, took no less than two years andoffers an opportunity to appreciate the vitality of the young French school ofchamber music.
'I only feel musically at ease with poetsthat I have known', Poulenc used to say, Having loved poetry passionately sincechildhood and become friends with some of the greatest French poets of thecentury, he could not but maintain a special affinity with song, interweavingwords and music in ever closer unity, so much so that he wrote: 'If they put onmy tomb' "Here lies Francis Poulenc, the musician of Apollinaire andEluard", I think that would be my finest claim to fame'... In his Entretienswith Claude Rostand Poulenc explained: 'When I have chosen a poem themusical setting of which I will sometimes complete only several months later, Iexamine it in all its aspects... I recite the poem to myself often, I listen toit, looking out for problems, I sometimes underline difficult places in thetext in red. I note the breathing poi