A Pleasing Peck of Poulenc!


POULENC: Sextet for Piano, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon & Horn. Sonata for Oboe & Piano. Trio for Piano, Oboe & Bassoon. Flute Sonata. Villanelle for Pipe & Piano. Violin Sonata. Bagatelle for Violin & Piano. Clarinet Sonata. Cello Sonata. Capriccio d’après Le Bal masque for 2 Pianos. Élégie for 2 Pianos. L’Embarquement pour Cythère. Sonata for Piano 4 Hands. 2-Clarinet Sonata. Sonata for Clarinet & Bassoon. Sonata for Horn, Trumpet & Trombone. Élégie for Horn & Piano. Sarabande for Guitar / Alexandre Tharaud, pno 1; François Chaplin, pno 2; Philippe Bernold, fl/rec; Olivier Doise, ob; Ronald van Spaendonck, cl 1; André Moisan, cl 2; Laurent Lefèvre, bsn; Hervé Joulain, Fr-hn; Graf Mourja, vln; Françoise Groben, cel; Guy Touvron, tpt; Jacques Mauger, tb; Pierre Laniau, gtr / Le Bal Masque. Le Bestiaire. Quatre Poèmes de Max Jacob. Rapsodie négre / Franck Leguérinel, bar & various performers incl. Tharaud / Cocardes / Jean Delescluse, ten; various performers / L’Histoire de Babar, le petit elephant / François Mouzaya, narr; Tharaud, pno / L’invitation au château. Léocadia / Danielle Darrieux, voc; various artists / The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant / Natasha Emerson, narr; Tharaud, pno / Naxos 8.505258

This is a boxed set reissue of the five CDs that Naxos first released singly in 1999-2000 of the complete chamber music of Francis Poulenc. In between, however, Brilliant Classics issued their own “complete chamber music” set on three CDs which included everything you see here with the exception of the vocal works with chamber accompaniment (Le Bestiaire, Le Bal Masque, Quatre Poèmes de Max Jacob, Rapsodie négre, Babar the Elephant), most of which are commonly available in excellent performances elsewhere.

But there’s a problem. When I first heard and reviewed the Brilliant Classics set, I thought it was quite good and said so, but I hadn’t heard these Naxos recordings, apparently made under the guidance of pianist Alexandre Tharaud whose playing is heard on most of the performances. The reason I hadn’t heard them is that they came out at a time when I was working full time in a non-music-related job, had very little “discretionary income” for CDs, and wasn’t reviewing, so I missed them.

You can hear the difference between the two sets right away if you compare the two different performances of the famous Sextet. Tempos are pretty much the same in both performances, but the Naxos version is far livelier and has a greater visceral impact. In part this is due to the performers but even more so to the sound quality. The Brilliant Classics set is swimming in reverb, and although this is something that many Naxos recordings have moved to in recent years, in 1999-2000 they were still making recordings with tight miking which helps one hear every little texture of the music with its full impact. But yes, part of it is due to the energy expended by the performers. Even in the slow movements of this Naxos set, the players give much more than their counterparts on Brilliant Classics, and this, in turn, helps to engage the listener in a much more visceral listening experience. The third movement of the Sextet, for one, is taken here at a real prestissimo while its counterpart on Brilliant Classics is played at a slightly lukewarm allegro, and these kind of differences pervade the entire collection.

All of the works for winds and horn have the same kind of bite and drive as the legendary recordings by the old New York Woodwind Quintet when John Barrows was still their French horn player. It’s a French style that evolved in the 1920s and ‘30s, when Poulenc was young and writing many of these works, and continued into the 1960s—but not much further until this set came along.

An aside: Poulenc is one of those rare composers, like Beethoven and Mahler, who everyone likes to some extent. This is not as common an occurrence in the classical world as you may think; many of the music’s great geniuses are loved by some and just tolerated by others, particularly with 20th and 21st-century composers. He had a knack for writing in a style that was modern but still accessible, ranging from very complex works to pieces that were catchy and cute but never condescending to his listeners. The only exception I make with Poulenc is his opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites, which is not universally liked. I don’t like it, in part because the music is surprisingly perfunctory for him and in part because, I’m sorry to say, I don’t like nuns and don’t feel sorry for them going to the guillotine.

Because this music is mostly very familiar to classical listeners, I was able to do something in reviewing this set that I normally don’t or can’t do: I just sat back and enjoyed the performances as if I were attending a marathon Poulenc concert. And none of them disappoint, I think in part because Tharaud guided this set so well through the various pieces.

In the vocal works, the principal singer is baritone Franck Leguérinel, who has a light, very slightly rough voice, surprisingly reminiscent of Poulenc’s favorite singer, Pierre Bernac. Oddly, for some reason the volume level on this disc (Vol. 4) is rather softer than on the first three, so you’ll have to turn up the volume a little, but the performances are not a whit less lively. (I never quite noticed it before, but this song cycle bears a kinship with some of Kurt Weill’s music.) Jean Delescluse, the tenor who sings Cocardes, had a light, clear voice similar to that of a very good character tenor in operetta, and he too sings expressively.

This set is one of those happy coincidences where art meets technology and everything comes out perfectly. Even if you have other recordings of Le Bestiaire and Le Bal Masque, you really should own this complete set. Naxos has done the world an inestimable favor by bringing these superb recordings back to our attention in this fashion.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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