The Complete Chamber Music of Poulenc

Maurice Richter

[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]

The Nash Ensemble performs the complete chamber music of Francis Poulenc on a delightful two-CD set on the Hyperion label, CDA 67255/6.

The music of Poulenc above all abounds in melody. It is music that is easily accessible and which, despite its twentieth century provenance, never calls into question the prevailing tonal-modal system. Although Poulenc employed the diminished seventh more than any composer since Verdi, chromaticism in his music is never more than incidental. The simplicity and directness of the works of the first half of his career prevented many contemporary critics from seeing how serious a composer he really was. For the last half-century, the scrupulousness of his craftsmanship and his seriousness of purpose have been recognized, and he has finally come to be seen as a true master of the French idiom.

Poulenc’s chamber music output can conveniently be grouped into three chronological clusters. The four works of the earliest period (1918-26) include a Sonata for two clarinets (1918), a Sonata for clarinet and bassoon (1922), with forays into jazz and bitonality that frequently result in a mischievous cadence, and a Sonata for horn, trumpet and trombone (1922), the opening of which sounds almost like that of a Mozart divertimento, but which soon instead becomes a manifestation of Poulenc’s charmingly acid wit. These three sonatas for wind instruments alone are each less than ten minutes in length and full of spicy dissonances. Also from this earliest group of chamber works is the Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon (1926) which, like so many of Poulenc’s works, combines delicious wit, pungency and ebullience with a nostalgic, poignant lyricism.

The central group of chamber works includes the popular Sextet for wind quintet and piano begun in 1932 but not finished until 1939, a work of great tonal variety firmly anchored here by the knowing piano playing of Ian Brown, as well as two Sonatas, one for violin and piano (1942-3), the other for cello and piano (first sketched in 1940 but not completed until 1948). Poulenc remained in occupied France during the Second World War, dedicating the violin and piano sonata to the memory of Garcia Lorca, who was a victim of the Spanish Civil War, as a token of resistance. Its second movement is an intermezzo that, at its beginning, evokes the guitar music of Spain. The fact that Poulenc’s chosen instrument was the piano, at which he did all his composition, is reflected in the prominent rôle the piano plays in these two sonatas. In the cello sonata, for example, it is the piano that announces and sets the basic line which the cello then embellishes.

The later group includes three sonatas for solo woodwinds and piano, beginning with the Flute Sonata dedicated to the memory of Mrs Emma Sprague Coolidge, the well-known American patron of contemporary music during the 1920’s and 1930’s. It was composed between December 1956 and March 1957. The opening allegro in E minor captures a wistfulness characteristic of Poulenc, while in the gentle cantilena the flute unfolds a typically nostalgic melody with the piano assuming a secondary accompanying rôle except for several brief ritornelli. The finale shifts from one tonality to another, the mercurial flute of Philippa Davies perfectly matched by Ian Brown’s always responsive piano.

The wonderful Clarinet Sonata, dedicated to the memory of Poulenc’s friend Arthur Honegger, contains a hauntingly beautiful slow movement, a romanza whose principal melody marked “Très doux et mélancholique” is in G minor. This is Poulenc at his loveliest. A riotously animated final allegro provides strong contrast. The performances by Richard Hosford at the clarinet and Ian Brown are sensitive to every mood and could not easily be bettered.

The last of the three sonatas for woodwind and piano (and the last of Poulenc’s major works) is the Oboe Sonata, composed in 1962 and dedicated to the memory of Prokofiev. Here Poulenc alters his usual fast-slow-fast pattern of movements to slow-fast-slow, with the final déploration a sad meditation whose oboe plaint shifts in tonality several times before the quiet ending. These final three woodwind sonatas form part of a projected set that Poulenc did not live to complete.

The Hyperion album includes several other chamber pieces — the brief Villanelle for piccolo and piano (1934) and Sarabande for solo guitar (1960), as well as the Élegie for horn and piano (1957), dedicated to the memory of Dennis Brain, the famous English horn player. Poulenc had met Schoenberg, creator of the twelve-tone system and admired his work, though it was certainly alien to Poulenc’s own modus operandi. The Élegie is Poulenc’s attempt to come to terms with the new system. It opens with the solo horn stating a twelve-tone sequence, but remains basically tonal.

Superb work from all concerned enhances the Nash Ensemble’s already high reputation. They have now set the standard by which future realizations of Poulenc’s chamber music will be judged. The recording quality is ideal, with the various instruments in perfect balance. With wonderful performances of delightful music, this set gets a top-notch recommendation.