POULENC: Sextet / Trio / Oboe Sonata / Flute Sonata (Alexandre Tharaud/ Herve Joulain/ Laurent Lefevre/ Olivier Doise/ Philippe Bernold/ Ronald van Spaendonck) (Naxos: 8.553611)
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Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) Complete Chamber Music, Volume1
'Francis Poulenc is music itself, I knowno music more direct, more simply expressed nor which goes so unerringly to itstarget.' This praise from his friend, the composer Darius Milhaud, can only beequalled by that from Arthur Honegger who admired 'the man, a born composer,'who, 'in the midst of fashions, systems, prescriptions, has stayed true tohimself with that rare courage which demands respect.'
A French musician par excellence, FrancisPoulenc grew up in the heart of Paris, between the Madeleine ('my home town'),the Marais ('my village') and Nogent-sur-Mame ('my countryside... my paradisewith its open-air cafes, its chip-sellers and its bals musettes'). A precociouspianist, his creativity fed on Debussy who had 'awakened him to music',Stravinsky whom 'he took as his guide', Ravel and, above all, Satie, whoinfluenced him considerably 'more aesthetically than musically.' Though heconsidered Chabrier a 'grandad', the music-hall fascinated and enthralled him.
For many years, Poulenc had to put up with being labelled a 'superficial' and'light' composer. Nothing is further from the truth. His correspondence,collected by Myriam Chim?¿nes, and the magnificent biography by Renaud Marchart,both bear witness to this. ' And his music remains brazenly up-to-date.'
From the first work that he dared makepublic, the Rapsodie n?¿gre, at the advanced age of nineteen years, tothe very last, the Sonata for clarinet and piano and Sonata for oboeand piano, completed shortly before his unexpected death, Francis Poulencdevoted himself intermittently to chamber music, sometimes following an urgentdesire to write, sometimes in response to the wishes of virtuosi friends. Heliked to say, 'To write what seems right to me, when I want to, that is mymotto as a composer.'
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 friendswhich the critics referred to as the Groupe des Six. The Rapsodien?¿gre, the Sonata for two clarinets, the Piano Sonata for fourhands, the Bestiaire and Cocardes were created by a man yetto reach his twentieth birthday, who, replying to a request from his Londonpublisher, described himself as follows. 'I was born in Paris on 7th January1899... I studied piano under Vines and composition almost solely through booksbecause I was fearful of being influenced by a teacher I read a lot of musicand greatly pondered musical aesthetics... My four favourite composers, my onlymasters, are Bach, Mozart, Satie and Stravinsky, I don't like Beethoven at all...
I loathe Wagner ...In general, I am very eclectic, but while acknowledging thatinfluence is a necessary thing, I hate those artists who dwell in the wake ofthe masters ... Now, a crucial point, I am not a Cubist musician, even less aFuturist and, of course, not an Impressionist. I am a musician without alabel.' (Letter of 6th September 1919, quoted in Correspondence)
Trusting his instinct, Poulenc was 'likeall Latins... more into harmony than counterpoint.' Though he had refused tojoin the Schola Cantorum or the Conservatoire, to increase his knowledge heturned to Charles Koechlin, a musician more renowned as a teacher than acomposer. From the four years, 1921-25, when he concentrated on improving -among other things - his knowledge of counterpoint, Poulenc has left us a Sonatafor Clarinet and Bassoon, a Sonata for Horn, Trumpet and Trombone anda Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano. The chamber music was definitivelyassociated with wind instruments.
Following a fairly long period when hemoved away from the genre, Poulenc set out to write for strings and piano. The Sonatafor Cello and Piano was first written in 1940 and reworked eightyears later, whilst his Sonata for Violin and Piano was first performedin 1943 with Ginette Neveu. From this same period date L 'Histoire de Babar andPoulenc's collaboration with the dramatist Jean Anouilh, for whom he composedincidental music for Leocadia and L 'Invitation au Ch?óteau. Thestart of the 1950s saw the creation of a profusion of pieces for two pianos for'les boys', the American pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale: L'Embarquement pour Cyth?¿re, a capriccio in the style of Le Balmasque, the Sonata and the Elegie. From 1956 Poulenc renewedhis relationship with the wind instruments, with an El?¿gie for Horn andPiano. 'I believe that specialising in the woodwind side is the solutionfor me at the moment,' he wrote to Pierre Bernac. Like Debussy and Saint-Sa?½nsbefore him, at the height of his powers he composed three sonatas for windinstruments and piano. The Sonatas for Flute and Piano, for Clarinet andPiano and for Oboe and Piano each represent a poignant homage to a deardeparted friend.
Contrary to the persistent assumption,Poulenc did not find writing easy. In this respect, the composition of the Sextetfor piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn is revealing. Six yearsafter the 1933 performance, Poulenc took up again his 'old Sextet neverpublished by Hansen', created at the time of Le Bal masque. 'There weresome good ideas in it but the whole thing was badly put together,' he explainedto Nadia Boulanger. 'With the proportions altered, better balanced, it comesover very clearly.'
'Very fast and fiery,' the Allegrovivace dashes along in dazzling, energetic rhythms which give way to aslower section introduced by a lyrically melancholic bassoon. If The Rite isnot far away, the sad sweet song, expressed by the piano and then by thedifferent instruments, conceals a poignant poetry. The original pace returns,full of rhythmic phrases and vigour. The Divertissement, marked andantino,is written within a three-part slow-fast-slow structure whilst the Finale,a prestissimo in rondo form, exploits the different instrumentalcolours with gay generosity. This lively, warm surge where sparklingStravinskian touches and sudden lyrical flights are intertwined, gives way to acoda with 'pretty and somewhat false chord progressions,' poignantly sad, witha tender and nostalgic sweetness. This Sextet is dedicated to GeorgesSalles, curator at the Louvre, who for some time accommodated Poulenc in hisMontmartre residence.
Performed after the composer's death byPierre Pierlot and Jacques Fevrier, the Sonata for Oboe and Piano is oneof Poulenc's last works. During his 'only real holiday of the year' atBagnols-en-For?¬t in 1962, he wrote to Pierre Bernac. 'I've sketched out quite afew things... I've found the makings of a Sonata for Oboe. The firstsection will be an elegy, the second a schelzando and the last asort of liturgical chant.' Dedicated to the memory of Sergey Prokofiev, whom hehad known in the 1920s and with whom he was equally content to sit at the pianoor to play bridge, the Sonata for Oboe and Piano adopts a slow-fast-slowstructure which contrasts with the classical sonata form. Both the initial Elegy,to be played 'peacefully' and the 'very animated' Scherzo take on aneloquent, simple yet sophisticated idiom. With its solemn introductory bars ofsolo piano, the third movement, Deploration, echoes the starkness ofsacred works. The melancholic oboe unfolds its sad lament over the poetic,discreet nimbus of the piano.