Poulenc’s Complete Chamber Music Released

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POULENC: Capriccio après le “Bal Masque.” L’Embarquement pour Cythère. Elégie en accords alternés. Sonata for Two Pianos / Matteo Fossi, Marco Gaggini, pn / Sonata for Piano Four Hands / Federica Ferrati, Matteo Fossi, pn 4 hands / Sonata for Violin & Piano. Bagatelle d’après le “Bal Masque” / Duccio Ceccanti, vln; Matteo Fossi, pn / Sonata for Cello & Piano. Suite française, d’après Claude Gervaise / Vittorio Ceccanti, cel; Matteo Fossi, pn / Trio for Piano, Oboe & Bassoon. Sextet for Piano, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon & Horn. Sonata for Flute & Piano. Villanelle for Recorder & Piano. Sonata for Oboe & Piano. Sonata for Clarinet & Piano. Elégie for Horn & Piano / Domenico Orlando, oboe; Claudia Bucchini, fl/recorder; Calogero Palmero, cl; Andrea Zucco, bsn; Geremia Iezzi, Fr hn; Matteo Fossi, pn / Sonata for 2 Clarinets / Palmero, Jean-Luc Voltano, cl / Sonata for Clarinet & Bassoon / Palmero, cl; Zucco, bsn / Sonata for Horn, Trumpet & Trombone / Iezzi, Fr hn; Claudio Quintavalla, tpt; Fabiano Fiorenzani, tb / Trois movements perpétuels (vers. for chamber ensemble) / Orlando, oboe; Bucchini, fl; Palmero, cl; Zucco, bsn; Iezzi, Fr hn; Stefano Rava, Eng hn; Duccio Ceccanti, vln; Edoardo Rosadini, vla; Lorenzo Cosi, cel; Petru L. Horvath, bs; Matteo Fossi, cond / Brilliant Classics 95351

This surprising and quite wonderful set of Poulenc’s chamber music features a bevy of relatively unknown performers, all quite excellent, under the general leadership of 39-year-old Italian pianist Matteo Fossi. Whatever it was that prompted all this music to be recorded and issued was clearly an inspired idea, for there is not a mediocre or uninteresting track on this set.

Prior to hearing this, I was mostly familiar with Poulenc through his songs, his ballet score Les Biches, his Gloria, Organ Concerto, the operas La Voix Humaine and Dialogues of the Carmelites, and just a few chamber works like the Violin Sonata, the wonderful Sextet and the Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon. Thus I was enthralled to hear all these wonderful pieces, so many of which have the same lively, energetic feel of his songs (many of them splendidly recorded by baritone Holger Falk) and none of them overstaying their welcome. Fossi and his compatriots bring tremendous energy to these performances, but also a fine sensitivity. They never allow the music to bog down or become bland in its presentation, but rather give their all. Some of these are so good that you’d almost swear they were live performances, but they’re not.

Those familiar with Poulenc, and I would assume that most classical aficionados are, will not need an introduction to his music. With the sole exception of Dialogues of the Carmelites, his music tends to be written in brief, terse musical statements, full of rhythm and color and staying within a relatively narrow harmonic range, at least as compared to most 20th-century composers. But it is also superbly crafted, mostly entertaining in the best sense of the word, and lacking in pretension. Poulenc, as someone once described him, was “an amusing man who speaks through his nose,” but in his music he spoke through notes. What I found interesting was that this man who had such a gift for lightness and humor in music was in fact a fairly melancholy personality who put on a happy face for his friends but was always lonely and suffering inside.

Piano music, particularly duo-piano and piano four hands, dominates the first CD and is largely in his most attractive, almost popular-music, style with the exception of the moving Elégie for 2 pianos. Fossi and his duet partner, Marco Gaggini, are both excellent pianists with a good feel for the give-and-take of this music. They employ subtle but noticeable tempo rubato in their performances, giving one a good impression of Poulenc’s music; the forward propulsion is always tempered by their good taste in phrasing and dynamics.

Interestingly, the string players, particularly violinist Duccio Ceccanti, have a very Italianate sound and sensibility quite different from the usual French-styled violinists who one would think might play Poulenc’s music. This means a very bright timbre and a passionate, almost visceral bow attack on the strings that remind one of Enrico Gatti, Salvatore Accardo or Ruggiero Ricci. But “authentic” or not, I loved it! As it turned out, I already had two outstanding recordings of this particular sonata, one by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the other by Arabella Steinbacher, both superb, but Ceccanti definitely gives them a run for their money. Ceccanti also plays the brief Bagatelle d’après le “Bal Masque” with similar energy—and wit. Never forget that wit is an important element in Poulenc’s music!

This joie-de-vivre also spills over into his cello music, surely the least moody and pensive ever written for that instrument, and Vittorio Ceccanti is fully up to the task, playing with a light tone and a style full of little portamento touches and insouciant upward sweeps. The second movement, however, is clearly one of Poulenc’s most sincere and moving expressions, not so much serious in the sense that Brahms is serious but more in the way someone you love is serious when they speak to you with truth in their heart and honesty in their voice, and Ceccanti plays it perfectly. In the last movement Poulenc pushes the cello as if it were a violin—not so much in range (that would be more like the Chopin Polonaise Brillante) as in technical fleetness, writing looping, daring triplets for the instrument to swing through. The Suite Française, though decidedly lighter in form, is equally virtuosic and fun to play, and some of its interior movements, i.e. the Pavane, Complainte and Sicilienne, are surprisingly heartfelt pieces quite different from his usual semi-comic façade. Although Ceccanti is good in these, I felt that his tone was just a bit thin, making me wonder what Zuill Bailey or Steven Isserlis might sound like playing them.

The fairly brief (12 minute) Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano is a kissing cousin of Françaix’s chamber music, light and effervescent with some really demanding virtuoso passages, and here the Italian musicians are really quite outstanding in both tone and technique, blowing through the music as if they could play it in their sleep. Surely they have an absolute ball with the Sextet, possibly Poulenc’s most famous and certainly his most-played piece of chamber music. The notes literally explode out of your speakers, the performance being bucolic and ebullient, so full of humor that at certain moments it makes you laugh out loud.

The Flute Sonata is surprisingly tonal, almost post-Romantic in feeling, resembling some of the works of Paul Taffenel. It is played with just the right combination of brio and sensitivity (particularly the latter) by Claudia Bucchini. Listening to it, I could just imagine that some teenaged wunderkind will ruin it sooner or later on NPR’s Saturday-morning showcase trained robots, From the Top. I can hardly wait. Surely none of them will be able to match Fossi’s lively yet delicately-chiseled piano accompaniment, which is full of shade and light. The Villanelle for recorder and piano, though brief, is more modern in its harmonic changes and surprisingly sensitive in feeling. The Oboe Sonata, too, begins in a somewhat serene and reflective mood. After a lively but quite odd Scherzo, the music becomes reflective once again in “Déploration: Très calme,” in which Poulenc explores the full range of the instrument, exploiting both its highest and lowest notes.

Perhaps because of its brighter character, the clarinet sonata is generally more energetic, yet even here Poulenc has written some surprisingly reflective passages, even in the midst of the fast opening movement. One thing I particularly liked about the performance was the penny-bright tone that clarinetist, not dissimilar from Benny Goodman’s. How typical; throughout his lifetime, most classical clarinetists and clarinet pedagogues hated Goodman’s sound, dumped on him for his “reedy” top range and “woody” low range, but now that he’s dead, many modern-day players of that instrument emulate his sound (see my previous article, Hating on Benny).

In the Elégie for Horn & Piano, Geremia Iezzi displays a slightly clouded tone but plays with tremendous sensitivity and a flawless legato. The piece itself is surely one of Poulenc’s most serious and emotional, and once again Fossi’s pianism is simply wonderful, dramatic and sad in turn. In the two-clarinet sonata, we get not one but two bright-toned clarinetists, engaging in Poulenc’s quirky yet entertaining style, which is carried over into the equally odd sonata for clarinet and bassoon. Being more of a brass fan by nature, however, I was really enchanted by the lively yet beautifully-crafted Sonata for Trumpet, Trombone and French Horn. Who else but Polenc could even have conceived this music? And the performance is simply wonderful, thanks in large measure to the “soft” trumpet tone of Claudio Quintavalla.

The set wraps up with a surprisingly understated (albeit lively) performance of the chamber group arrangement of Trois movements perpétuels. This wonderfully subtle piece is obviously early Poulenc—it’s his FP14 (Poulenc’s equivalent of opus numbers)—yet no one else, even at that time, could possibly have written it.

All in all, an excellently-played, highly entertaining and simply fun album to listen to!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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