POULENC: Complete Music for Winds and Piano. Sonata for oboe
and piano (1962); Sonata for flute and piano (1957); Sonata for clarinet
(1962); Trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano (1926); Sextuor for flute,
oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, and piano (1939); Villanelle for
and piano (1934); Élégie for French horn and piano (1957).
MSR Classics MS 1540 TT: 60:33.
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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
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
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 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
show a verve and a distinct original voice, and performers still play
them today. By the mid-Twenties, however, Poulenc produces his first
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
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
on the structure of previous masterpieces and cited his own frequent
raids on Mozart. This became Poulenc's entry to writing more complex
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,
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
sardonic and sassy. Toward the end, a phrase from the first movement
makes a surprise appearance as the main rondo theme dances against it.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
a clarity of texture this recording lacks. It may be a matter of poor
microphone placement and mixing, and the consistent audible preparatory
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)