POULENC: Complete Music for Winds and Piano. Sonata for oboe and piano (1962); Sonata for flute and piano (1957); Sonata for clarinet and piano (1962); Trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano (1926); Sextuor for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, and piano (1939); Villanelle for piccolo and piano (1934); Élégie for French horn and piano (1957). Iowa Ensemble.
MSR Classics MS 1540 TT: 60:33.

Variable. If you were to bet on the Next Great French Composer after Ravel, you probably wouldn't have picked Poulenc. People tended to dismiss his work as "trivial" and "naïve," preferring the more complex and grimmer Honegger and Milhaud. Yet it seems as if Poulenc has outlasted his serious friends. A Milhaud or Honegger work on a concert program's a rare thing these days, while several of Poulenc's have become classics. Many consider him the greatest French songwriter after Fauré.

Poulenc's music embodies what we think of as a French musical point of view: sensual, scaled for humans rather than titans, witty, elegant, and often surprisingly deep and heartfelt. It's recognizing the profound in the familiar, as when you finally realize the penetrating truth of some old wheeze your parents used to say to you all the time. Many influence his music: Satie and Stravinsky above all, but also Fauré, Duparc, French music hall and popular songs, and Renaissance and Baroque stile antico sacred choral music.

Although Poulenc wrote both a violin and a cello sonata as well as an aborted string quartet (he reworked it as the orchestral Sinfonietta), he admitted he felt somewhat estranged from string instruments. His orchestral music gets its bite and energy from the winds. Far more felicitous, his chamber music for winds divides into three periods. At their earliest, they seem almost studies, perhaps written during his semi-apprenticeship to the French composer and pedagogue Charles Koechlin. Brief and compact, they nevertheless show a verve and a distinct original voice, and performers still play them today. By the mid-Twenties, however, Poulenc produces his first extended score in the genre, the Trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano. He strengthens this path in his Sextuor, from the late Thirties. In the Fifties he picks up again with his Flute Sonata, a work that represents the culmination of the idiom of the Sextuor. However, after that work, the music becomes more astringent, and the final three works -- the Elegy and the sonatas for clarinet and for oboe -- show a darker, sadder view of the world.
Almost entirely self-taught, Poulenc, like many songwriters, composed mainly through improvisation. His early works are brief. Rather than develop his music, he often simply adds a new section, and his music proceeds largely in phrases of two or four bars. However, he recognized he needed more solid architecture. Ravel passed along to him his trick of basing original work on the structure of previous masterpieces and cited his own frequent raids on Mozart. This became Poulenc's entry to writing more complex music, although he always adapted the method to his instincts. The first really "big" work -- that is, not a song cycle or a suite of short pieces -- is the Trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano. It shows some of the awkwardness of inexperience in writing a "first." Despite Poulenc's use of a Haydn trio movement as a guide, the first movement especially consists of scraps casually glued together and some unassimilated influences. The very opening, a stark biting chorale against which each of the players takes a brief ornamental solo, owes something to both Renaissance music and to Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920). However, this quickly morphs into something original, with a quick octave run (based on one of the bassoon phrases in the opening) into an insouciant presto with the energy of a René Clair musical. The energy doesn't last, however. Soon and suddenly, the mood of the introduction returns, leading to a languorous and bittersweet slow section. The mood and harmonic underpinnings derive from Fauré, but the melody is pure Poulenc. The presto breaks in once more for a brief "how are ya," to which Poulenc attaches a coda. Again, the movement amounts to an assemblage of pieces, but it really doesn't seem to matter, because the inspiration of each piece is so high.

The second movement, "Andante," opens in something like perfect serenity, a mood Poulenc seemed able to capture at will, especially in his mélodies. Each instrument gets to shine by trading phrases of a long-limbed song. The atmosphere turns melancholy after a while, but gently and easily returns to that of the opening for a recapitulation. It all holds together far better than the first movement, although it does break down a bit at the end. Once again, it doesn't matter.

The "Rondo" finale, the tightest movement of the three, begins with a kick-up-your-heels theme in quick triple time. It has some of the crazy happiness of a puppy. In its course, the movement moves through the sardonic and sassy. Toward the end, a phrase from the first movement makes a surprise appearance as the main rondo theme dances against it. If you fail to smile by the end of the movement, congratulations! You are either Botoxed or the Grinch.

The Sextuor, on the other hand, counts as one of Poulenc's most perfect works. Its sound-world resembles that of the ballet/chamber-concerto Aubade (1929), but with a much tighter narrative. Despite the presence of violas, cellos, and a double bass, the woodwinds again dominate the earlier work. The Sextuor begins (Allegro Vivace) hopping about like an angry hornet or a malignant sprite, but a breezier, boulevardier spirit wafts in and coexists with the choler. The musical thread darts from instrument to instrument, sometimes just three notes at a time. The players can't afford to wink out. The gremlin energy dissipates with a stamp, ushering in a melancholy, long-breathed tune, very similar in mood to some of Poulenc's religious choral music. Here, however, there's no hint of the sacred, but tons of despond. The relentless gremlin of the first section breaks in once more as it races to the end.

The second movement (Divertissement) mixes the lyrical with the dance-like. Its prevailing flavor mixes a bit of bitter into the sweet.

The Finale immediately cocks its snoot. Longer melodies weave into the texture, but the manic undercurrent, including a testy reminiscence of the 1927 Pastourelle, never quite goes off the boil. And, like that, it's gone. The players seem to take a long breath. The bassoon gives out a meandering solo leading to a melancholy duet between oboe and horn, extended by the other instruments. Then, like that, we come to serenity and transcendence so quickly that it seems like sleight of hand. With that, the music ends.

The wind pieces of the Fifties show great concision and elegance. Death touches most of them, but all have deeper moments than the earlier scores. Poulenc planned a series of works for the solo instruments of the woodwind quintet but died before he could complete them.

Almost all professional flutists have Poulenc's Sonata in their repertoire, just as they have Debussy's Syrinx. Poulenc here gives a pastoral vision of French Hellenism -- the musical equivalent of an Aubusson tapestry or of a painting by Fragonard or even of Marie Antoinette playing dairymaid in the Tuileries. The first movement has the unusual marking of "Allegretto malinconico." "Malinconico" means "moody," and this is indeed music of moods, from rue to gaiety. A rapid arpeggiated figure -- almost an ornament -- drops immediately into long notes. It functions as a generator of new themes and as a signpost in old ones ("Topeka 2 miles ahead"). The modality throughout hovers between minor and major. A second theme, full of trills, establishes an aspirational serenity, and I hear it as the offspring of Poulenc's music for the joyful Souer Constance from his opera Dialogues des Carmélites 1956. It ends on an alternation between major and minor -- the essential modal ambiguity of the movement.

The slow, lyrical "Cantilena" sings, as its title suggests. It begins with an awesome two-part idea for flute and one-finger piano (or it could be played with one finger) that leads to the main idea. This theme resembles very strongly Poulenc's religious music, particularly his O magnum mysterium from the 1952 Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël, and from other similar sources as well. The main idea repeats three times with different extensions, including a lively passage before it makes a brief fourth and final appearance before a short coda.

The "Presto giocoso" finale blows away all previous regrets, like a clean breeze. The main inspiration here is the playful rhythmic side of Stravinsky, although Poulenc speaks in his own voice. Again, we hear the René Clair élan. Vigor mixes with the songful. Hints of the earlier movements mix in, at breakneck pace, until it suddenly stops, making way for a subdued passage. But in a moment the straw hats and the jaunty steps come back, and the sonata ends.

In 1957, Dennis Brain, a prodigious virtuoso who single-handedly established a modern school of horn players by his example, died at a shockingly young age in a car accident. Poulenc dedicated his Élégie for horn to Brain's memory. It shows the rare harsh side of Poulenc's music, with an angry passage that owes much to Stravinsky, and stands as one of his longer movements. It also shows Poulenc fooling around with tone rows, not in the tight structural way of Schoenberg, but as melodies and moods. The horn leads off with two such tone rows, establishing an atmosphere of bewilderment. A furious passage follows, as if railing against a senseless death. The idiom derives ultimately, I think, from Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and proximately from one of Poulenc's most Oedipus-inspired works, the Stabat mater of 1951. The bewildered alternates with ferocious. The music then settles into a extended lament -- some of the most profound music Poulenc ever created -- on the order of David's for Absalom. Again, it derives from his Stabat mater. The music turns bitter for a brief passage, and then looks for an elusive acceptance without success.

The Clarinet Sonata commemorates the death of his friend and compatriot in Les Six, Arthur Honegger. Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein premiered the work in New York. The first movement, "Allegro tristamente" (quickly moving, but sad), begins with a bit of Twenties hi-jinks in a short intro before it settles into the main strain, a long, edgy line accompanied by a restless piano. Bits of the Flute Sonata and the Gloria (1960) "Domine Deus, Agnus Dei" flit by. The section ends with the return of the intro material, which leads to an extended calmer section and a big echo of the "Domine Deus, Agnus Dei." The main allegro strain with allusions to the hi-jinks ends the movement quietly.

The second movement, "Romanza," is yet another lament and also incorporates ideas from the Gloria movement as well as the motet "O magnum mysterium." The movement ends with a reference to the main rhythmic figure of the Flute Sonata's "Allegro malinconico." The "Allegro con fuoco" finale disperses the unhappiness with Gallic élan.

Poulenc wrote his Oboe Sonata, his last completed work, in memory of Serge Prokofieff. It breaks the pattern of his other sonatas, in that two slow movements surround a fast one. Poulenc marks the first-movement "Élégie" with "paisible" (peaceful), and certainly the opening section is that. However, the middle becomes monumental and grave, in the manner of the instrumental sections of Dialogues des Carmélites and in some of the religious music, like "Timor et tremor" from the 4 Lenten motets. However, the "paisible" returns to close. The second movement begins as a light-hearted scherzo, but it quickly turns sardonic with a figure from the Gloria's "Domine Deus, Agnus Dei," like a gargoyle sticking out its tongue. The scherzo abruptly cuts off, replaced by another yearning, slow song, perhaps an homage to Prokofieff's slow movements. The scherzo ends the movement, this time scrubbed of its darker elements.

The "Déploration" counts as the most remarkable movement in these sonatas, the one most part of the world of the religious music and of the Organ Concerto (1938). Grave and transcending time, it reminds me of the starkness of a painting by Mantegna. It's less than sonata than prayer on a hard stone floor.

The Villanelle is new to me, as far as I can recall. A bonbon, Poulenc wrote it for recorder (here played on the piccolo) and piano. It evokes French classical pastoralism and will charm the socks off you.

I've heard many of the members of the Iowa Ensemble before as soloists. Benjamin Coelho, for example, is a bassoonist who manages to turn the "clown prince of the orchestra" into pure prince, to rival the cello. Flutist Micole Esposito, oboist Mark Weiger, clarinetist Maurita Murphy Marx, and French hornist Kristin Thelander are superb in their solo stints, and pianist Alan Huckleberry provides poetic and alert accompaniment. However, they fall flat in the ensemble pieces, especially the Sextuor. That score is full of very quick handoffs of short phrases between instruments and requires a clarity of texture this recording lacks. It may be a matter of poor microphone placement and mixing, and the consistent audible preparatory breaths of the soloists may back this up. For the Trio and the Sextuor, I recommend the Nash Ensemble on CRD Records.

S.G.S. (January 2019)

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