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8.553614 - POULENC: Bal masque (Le) / Rapsodie negre / Elegie
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Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) Complete Chamber Music, Volume 4
'I am a musician who cannot be labelled'

Francis Poulenc is music itself. I know no music more direct, more simply expressed or going so unerringly to it its target. This praise from his composer friend, Darius Milhaud, is equalled only by that from Arthur Honegger, rating him a born composer, who 'amid fashions. systems, prescriptions, has stayed true to himself with that rare courage which demands respect.. A French musician par excellence, Francis Poulenc grew up in the heart of Paris, between the Madeleine -'my home town'-, the Marais -'my village'- and Nogent-sur-Marne - 'my countryside... paradise with its open-air cafes, chip-sellers and dances to the accordion. A precocious pianist, his creativity fed on his inspirer - Debussy, his guide - Stravinsky , Ravel and above all Satie - a great influence, even more aesthetically than musically. Though he considered Chabrier a 'grandad', the music-hall enthralled him. Though for many years he had to suffer being labelled a superficial and light composer, nothing is farther from the truth. His correspondence collected by Myriam Chimenes and Renaud Machart's magnificent biography both testify to this, noting his music's boldly up-to-date nature.

From the first work he dared make public, the Rapsodie negre, at the advanced age of nineteen, to the very last, the Sonatas for clarinet and piano and Sonata for oboe and piano, completed shortly before his untimely death, Francis Poulenc devoted himself intermittently to chamber music, sometimes following an urge to write, sometimes responding to the wishes of virtuosi friends. He liked saying. 'To write what seems right to me, when I want to, that is my motto as a composer' (Entretiens). These chamber works, cocking a snook at early twentieth century post- romantic pretensions, mischievous, youthful portraits from the inter-war period, melancholic, tender images of the post-war spirit, the final pages as sparse as a Matisse drawing, give off a bitter-sweet perfume of Chekhovian nostalgia and somewhat false gaiety.

Saturated with the Parisian excitement greeting the end of the Great War, Poulenc's first chamber works display 'the New Attitude', the often jocular musical vitality of the circle of friends which the critics referred to as the Groupe des Six. The Rapsodie negre, the Sonatafor two clarinets, the Piano Sonata for four hands (Naxos 8.553613, vol.3), Le Bestiaire and Cocardes were created by a man not yet twenty, who, responding to a request from his London publisher, described himself thus. 'I was born in Paris on 7th January 1899 ...studied piano under Vines and composition almost solely through books because I was fearful of being influenced by a teacher. I read a lot of music and greatly pondered musical aesthetics…. My four favourite composers, my only masters, are Bach, Mozart, Satie and Stravinsky. I don't like Beethoven at all… I loathe Wagner... In general, I am very eclectic, but while acknowledging that influence is indispensable, I hate artists who dwell in the wake of the masters... Now, a crucial point, I am not a Cubist musician, even less a Futurist and, of course, not an Impressionist. I am a musician without a label.' (Letter of 6th September 1919, quoted in Correspondence).

Trusting his unfailing instinct, Poulenc was 'like all Latins ... more into harmony than counterpoint' (Entretiens). Having refused to join the Schola Cantorum or the Conservatoire, to deepen his knowledge he turned to Charles Koechlin, a musician more renowned as teacher than composer. From the years 1921 to 1925, when he concentrated on improving -among other things -his mastery of counterpoint, Poulenc left us a Sonata for clarinet and bassoon, a Sonata for horn, trumpet and trombone (Naxos 8.553613, vol.3) and a Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano (Naxos 8.553611, vo1.1). The chamber music was definitively associated with wind instruments.

Following a fairly long period when he moved away from the genre -the only offerings being the superb Le Hal masque, the popular Sextet and the modest 'Villanelle' for pipe and piano (Naxos 8,553611, vol.1), Poulenc set out to write for strings and piano. The Sonata for cello and piano (Naxos 8,553612, vol,2) was first written in 1940 and reworked in 1948, whilst his Sonata for violin and piano (Naxos 8.553612, vol.2) was first heard in 1943 with Ginette Neveu, From this same period date L' Histoire de Habar and Poulenc's collaboration with the dramatist Jean Anouilh, providing incidental music for Leocadia and L 'Invitation au chateau (Naxos 8.553615, vol.5), The start of the 1950s saw the creation of many pieces for two pianos for les boys, American pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale: L'Embarquementpour Cythère, a Capriccio in the style of Le Hal masque, the Sonata and the Elégie (Naxos 8.553613, vol.3), From 1956 Poulenc returned to wind instruments, with an Elégie for horn and piano, 'I believe that specialising in the woodwind side is the solution for me at the moment' he wrote to Pierre Bernac, Like Debussy and Saint-Saëns before him, at the height of his powers he composed three sonatas for wind instruments and piano. The Sonatas for flute and piano (Naxos 8.553611, vol.1), for clarinet and piano (Naxos 8.553612, vol.2) and for oboe and piano (Naxos 8.553611, vol.1) all represent poignant tributes to lost friends.

To celebrate the centenary of Poulenc's birth is to celebrate French music stripped of the ideological abstractions so common in twentieth-century artistic trends, it is to celebrate the freedom to live and the courage to follow instinct's inner path, it is to celebrate the marriage of poetry freed from the romantic heritage with music enamoured of French classicism, it is to celebrate the union of Stravinsky with Chevalier, of Pelleas with the music-hall, of the Madeleine with the boulevards, of the 'monastery and the mob', It also means celebrating the Paris of Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Eluard, Cocteau, Picasso, Dufy, This is a celebration of friendship transcending differences.

That is why Naxos decided to entrust these complete works to a team of young French musicians inspired with the camaraderie seen on Saturday nights when Milhaud, Auric, Tailleferre, Poulenc, Cocteau and so many others gathered to share their latest creations, to eat, drink and have a good laugh. But good spirits are not enough: this entire project, from conception to last recording, took no less than two years and offers an opportunity to appreciate the vitality of the young French school of chamber music.

'I only feel musically at ease with poets that I have known', Poulenc used to say, Having loved poetry passionately since childhood and become friends with some of the greatest French poets of the century, he could not but maintain a special affinity with song, interweaving words and music in ever closer unity, so much so that he wrote: 'If they put on my tomb' "Here lies Francis Poulenc, the musician of Apollinaire and Eluard", I think that would be my finest claim to fame'... In his Entretiens with Claude Rostand Poulenc explained: 'When I have chosen a poem the musical setting of which I will sometimes complete only several months later, I examine it in all its aspects… I recite the poem to myself often, I listen to it, looking out for problems, I sometimes underline difficult places in the text in red. I note the breathing points and try to find out the inner rhythm in a verse that is not necessarily the first one… I seldom begin a song with the beginning. One or two verses chosen at random catch my attention and quite often give me the tone, the secret rhythm, the key to the work'.. One of his oldest friends, the journalist Denise Bourdet, also testified to Poulenc's ability as an excellent raconteur, a gift he kept for his closest friends. 'He is an extraordinary story-teller. If there were a tape-recorder in the room, he would record long tales that you could publish without adding a comma. They all have their titles that the regulars call for, one after another'.. Poulenc composed many of his songs in the broader framework of song-cycles, as with those here included. While the piano was often the accompanying instrument, some of his most famous groups of songs were written for voice and chamber ensemble, wonderfully providing exquisite and original sonorities and textures. 'For a song to stand up, it must be constructed; for a song-cycle to be balanced, one must take into account a subtle plan for the sequence of keys, tempi and nuances' (Entretiens).

The secular cantata Le Bal masqué, for baritone and chamber orchestra, with a text drawn from poems by Max Jacob, was written in 1932 and first performed on 20th April that year. It was published in 1932 by Rouart Lerolle & Co. Composed for a spectacle-concert organized by Marie-Laure and Charles de Noailles for their property at Hyères, the work is scored for an ensemble consisting of oboe, clarinet, bassoon, comet, violin, cello, percussion and piano and was first heard in a concert that included music by Henri Sauguet, Auric, Igor Markevitch and Nicolas Nabokov. Poulenc was extremely fond of Le Bal masque: 'I am sure that people do not really like my music if they do not understand it. It is a hundred per cent Poulenc' (Journal de mes melodies). 'For me the Bal masque is a sort of Nogent carnival with the portraits of a few monsters seen in my childhood on the banks of the Marne' (Entretiens). He added; 'It is the only one of my works in which I think I found the means of glorifying a suburban atmosphere which I hold dear. That was thanks to the words of Max [Jacob], full of unexpected echoes, and the instrumental material I used. Here the colour underlines the emphatic, the ridiculous, the pitiful and the terrifying. It is the atmosphere of the crimes in colour of the Petit Parisien on Sundays in my childhood'. Le Bal masque opens with a Préambule et Air de bravoure of irresistible dynamism and irony, in which 'Madame la Dauphine fine fine fine' is followed by 'the Count of Artois, who tots up, on a roof, what is on the slate'. Next comes an instrumental lntermède with gentle, colourful, lyrical rhythms. Malvina "'twirls like a gypsy waltz", minces about, plays the duchess. ..goes to the ball in blue stockings, which is fatal for her: they talk to her about Nietzsche while she only wanted to be treated in cavalier fashion'. The Bagatelle is nothing but 'an unusual Paganini style caprice for violin'. 'In writing La Dame aveugle (The Blind Lady) I thought a lot about an astonishing very rich woman who used to frequent the Ile de Beauté in Nogent-sur-Marne around 1912... The Finale 'should be stupefying and almost terrifying. It is the key to the work and for me is an exact self-portrait by Max Jacob, as I knew him when he lived in rue Gabrielle, in Montmartre, in 1920' (Journal de mes melodies). 'No reservations, no deception, no knowing winks' stressed Poulenc, who in all his compositions wanted the singer to believe 'above all in the words he utters'.

Le Bestiaire ou Cortege d'Orphée was written in 1919 and first performed on 8th June 1919 at a matinee in memory of Guillaume Apollinaire. The work was published in 1920 by Eschig, with a dedication to Louis Durey. As a young soldier, based at Pont-sur-Seine with little to do, Poulenc hastened to set to music some poems from Apollinaire's Le Bestiaire that Adrienne Monnier had just sent him. Twelve songs were created from these concise verses, envisaged first with piano accompaniment then written for voice and chamber ensemble (string quartet, flute, clarinet and bassoon). On the advice of Auric he kept only six of these, forming a model cycle. The Dromedary ('bows firmly on the string, the clarinet rather harsh, the bassoon very clear and precise'), The Tibetan Goat ('very supple and even'), The Grasshopper ('1 draw your attention to the clarity of the little counterpoint of the flute and clarinet'), The Dolphin ('the whole piece very supple'), The Crayfish ('which moves backwards') and The Carp ('nicely rounded, the clarinet doubling the melody'). In his letter of January 1925 to Arthur Hoérée, Poulenc added that' the singer must above all guard against any attempt at humour. Poor Apollinaire, who wrote these verses when in love with Marie Laurencin, put into them only gentleness and melancholy. So these songs must be sung with tenderness, like Schubert's'.

Composed in August and September 1921, the Four Poems by Max Jacob were first performed on 7th January 1922 and were dedicated to Milhaud. They were published only in 1993 by Salabert. 'O my little golden Francis, I am sending you these fragile rhymes', wrote Max Jacob in the summer of 1920 to Poulenc, who had told him of his wish to write a new song-cycle for voice and instruments. He actually wrote four songs for baritone with an accompaniment of flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and trumpet, Est-il un coin plus solitaire (Is there a more solitary spot), C'est pour aller au bal (It is for going to the ball), Poète et tenor (Poet and tenor) and Dans le buisson de mimosa (In the mimosa bush). A year later he asked Ernest Ansermet not to talk about them: '1 burned them. They were the work of a man distracted into polytonalism and other damned stupidities fashionable in 1920'. Darius Milhaud had kept a copy which was found in 1993 and immediately published. Evidence of a developing style, the Four Poems by Max Jacob are overtly complex writing, both in their overladen chromaticism, especially in the melodic lines, and their fluid, constantly changing metres.

Rapsodie nègre was written in 1917 and makes use of a pseudo-African text attributed to a certain Makoko Kangourou. It was first performed on 11th December 1917 and was dedicated to Erik Satie. The work was published by Chester in 1919 'The Rapsodie nègre was written when I was eighteen. It was my first work; I mean the first I allowed to be heard; it was in fact the first time I had created something that I liked a little. I hated everything I was doing. The Rapsodie nègre is not an exotic or picturesque work: it is simply a work of free melody.' It was in these words that Poulenc chose to present to his English publisher, Manus Kling, this composition in five movements, Prelude, Ronde, Honoloulou, Pastorale, and Final, a work that had made his name known in Paris society. With the first performance of this interlude for voice, flute, clarinet, string quartet and piano at the Theatre du Vieux-Colombier Poulenc became famous. Paul Vidal, an eminent teacher at the Conservatoire, had exclaimed on seeing the score. 'Your work is foul, inept, unspeakable rubbish. you are laughing at me, with your fifths everywhere: and what is this Honolulu? A dirty joke? Ah! I see that you are going along with the Stravinsky, Satie and Co. gang. Well, good night'.. Satie, however, had been charmed by it, as had Ravel. Dyagilev wondered about a ballet and Stravinsky offered to get the work published. Poulenc was definitely one of the avant-garde.

Composed in 1919, Cocardes was published by Eschig and dedicated to Georges Auric. Under the standard of the 'tricolour' aesthetic of Roger de la Fresnaye's watercolours, Cocardes has 'the peculiarity of words [by Jean Cocteau] and music being written at the same time and so combining well; we are not each going off on our own. I wanted to write a work without any artful contrivance and solid, which would present itself as it is and strike home; I believe I succeeded. Above all, it is very much Paris, the after- the-races atmosphere. The titles will say it all: I Narbonne Honey, II Children's Maid III Army Child.. The work will clearly show that I am not an impressionist, as might be thought from the Rapsodie.' At about the same time that Paul Collaer received this letter, the critic Henry Collet was publishing in Comædia two celebrated articles in praise of what he called the French 'Six', Milhaud, Durey, Auric, Honegger, Poulenc and Tailleferre, by analogy with the Russian Five. This 'Group of Six', uniting round Cocteau and Satie, felt themselves linked by friendship rather than by a common aesthetic. Poulenc, anyway, thought Cocardes was his most 'Group of Six' work. It was first performed at a spectacle-concert arranged by Jean Cocteau on 21st February 1920 in a programme that included Poulenc's Ouverture, Auric's Adieu New York and Milhaud's Le Bœuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Root). 'This song-cycle should be sung without irony. ..1920 Medrano, pre-1914 Paris, (the gang of Bonnot, eh!), 1918 Marseille are recalled here. ..I place Cocardes among my 'Nogent works' with the smell of chips, the accordion and Piver perfume.' (Journal de mes melodies).

Poulenc's Elégie for horn and piano was composed in 1957 and first heard on 17th February 1958 in a BBC Third Programme broadcast. It was published in 1958 by Chester and dedicated to the memory of Dennis Brain, the famous horn-player for whom Benjamin Britten had written the horn part of his Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, who had died in a road accident that summer. After a horn-call, the first section can but evoke the violent circumstances of his death. The elegy itself really begins later. Harsh intervals with powerful dramatic rhythms transform its opening tenderness into a desolate, cold universe in which the feeling of loss and bitterness leaps out from a calm that is at times tragic or from a virtually atonal lament.

The Sarabande for guitar was written in New York in March 1960 and is the only work Poulenc wrote for the instrument. To the calm and melancholy of the melody is added a harmony that is subtle, even stark, as in the final bars.

Isabelle Battioni
Translated by Wil Gowans

Franck Leguerinel. After studying History, Franck Leguerinel opted for music studies at the Nantes Conservatoire, followed by study at the Paris Conservatoire, then the Opera's Ecole d' Art lyrique. He first appeared in 1991 at the Nantes Opera in Mozart's Finta Giardiniera. Since 1993, he has regularly sung at the Paris Opera National, in Manon and L' Enfant et les sortilèges, among others. He has a parallel concert career, with a repertoire ranging from Handel to Stravinsky and including early twentieth- century French music, of which he is especially fond.

Alexandre Tharaud. At seventeen, Alexandre Tharaud was already making a name for himself at the Paris Conservatoire. Remarkable performances in international competitions, including Munich and città di Senigallia in Italy, second and first prize respectively, marked the start of an international career. He has toured widely in Asia and North America as well as in France, where he has been heard at the Chopin festivals in Montpellier and La Roque d ' Antheron. He was chosen by Georges Pretre to play Poulenc's piano concerto with the French National Orchestra on the centenary of the composer's birth.

Jean Delescluse. At the age of 26, after commercial studies, Jean Delescluse joined the opera workshop at the Lyon Opera. Under Claire Gibault, he participated in some notable productions, singing Mozart's Apollo et Hyacinthus in Lyon and Paris, and Une Petite Flute Enchantee with the Opera Comique, on tour and in a video recording. Since 1993, he has been with the Lyon Opera. He also performs sacred music. A fine musician and an excellent speaker, he also performs French songs.

Hervé Joulain. Principal horn of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France at the age of twenty, Hervé Joulain had the early good fortune to play under great conductors; Leonard Berstein, Marek Janowski and Lorin Maazel in particular. Ten years later came his brilliant promotion to a similar post in the French National Orchestra. His career has also led him to play chamber music with such distinguished musicians as Paul Tortelier, Michel Dalberto and Patrick Gallois.

Pierre-Michel Durand. Having learned much from Daniel Barenboim and Carlo-Maria Giulini in Paris and London, Pierre-Michel Durand, at the age of twenty, won first prize at a Prague international conducting competition, with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra Prize. He has also appeared in Italy, Germany and Venezuela. The guest of top French conductors, he has formed particular links with Jean-Claude Casadesus, becoming his assistant then joint conductor, at the Lille National Orchestra.

Française Graben. Françoise Groben's career really took off in 1990, when she won the silver medal for cello along with the special Moscow Virtuoso and Artists' Union prizes at the celebrated Moscow Tchaikovsky competition. A pupil of Georges Mallach at the Luxembourg Conservatoire, she also studied with Boris Pergamenchikov in Cologne, where she obtained her soloist's diploma. Since then she has been a guest at numerous international festivals.

Ronald Van Spaendonck. Born in Namur in 1970, Ronald Van Spaendonck is considered one of the most promising clarinettists of his generation, From 1987 he amassed national awards and became 'Lauréat Juventus' in 1991. In the field of chamber music, he has appeared with violinist Gidon Kremer at the Paris Theatre de Ville and plays regularly with the Takàcs and Skampa String Quartets.

Laurent Lefèvre. At first a member of the Debussy Quintet after obtaining the highest distinctions on bassoon at the Paris Conservatoire, and also in leading international competitions, Laurent Lefèvre became principal bassoonist with the Paris Opera Orchestra in 1993. More recently, he was appointed to teach at the Lyon Conservatoire. He still appears in concerts all over the world with the Paris- Bastille Wind Octet.

Philippe Bernold. Winner of the 1987 Jean-Pierre Rampal international flute competition, Philippe Bemold is now regarded as one of the leading figures in French flute playing, He very soon entered upon a remarkable career alongside such eminent musicians as Mstislav Rostropovitch, Jean-Pierre Rampal. John Eliot Gardiner, then conductor at the Opéra National, offered him the principal flute desk at Lyon. He is also in demand as a teacher, teaching flute at the Lyon Conservatoire.

André Moisan. André Moisan started studying clarinet with his father, a clarinettist with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He later studied under Robert Crowley, Larry Combs and Karl Leister. His work reflects great interest in contemporary music, while remaining faithful to the classical repertoire. Moisan has been privileged to play under renowned conductors, mainly with the Montreal orchestra: indeed, it was with them, conducted by Charles Dutoit, that he first appeared as a soloist.

Olivier Doise. Winning first prize for oboe in M. Bourgue's class at the Paris Conservatoire by a unanimous decision started Olivier Doise's brilliant career. He was appointed principal oboist in the Orchestre de l'Opéra. Alongside his solo work, Olivier Doise also has a no less remarkable career in chamber music, both in France and abroad, as well as being part of the Paris-Bastille Wind Octet.

Guy Touvron. In 1967, at the age of seventeen, Guy Touvron joined Maurice Andre's class. He won a first prize for cornet in 1968, and for trumpet in 1969. The three international grands prix won in Munich, Prague and Geneva between 1971 and 1975 already showed his class as a trumpet player. Now teaching at the Paris Conservatoire, he is the first choice for many orchestras and a guest at the greatest festivals (Montreux, Salzbourg, &c.). He has already made over 65 recordings.

Jacques Mauger. Winner at the Markneu-kirchen and Toulon international competitions, he became principal trombonist with the Nice Philharmonic Orchestra, then soloist with the Paris Opera Orchestra. Numerous composers created arrangements and new works for his instrument, including Alex Rudajev's 1996 concerto for trombone and string orchestra. Mauger also teaches at the Paris Conservatoire as well as at the Lorenzo Peroni Academy in Biella, Italy.


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