|About this Recording
8.553613 - POULENC: Sonata for Two Pianos / Clarinet Sonatas
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) Complete Chamber Music, Volume 3
'Francis Poulenc is music itself, I know no music more direct, more simply expressed nor which goes so unerringly to its target.' This praise from his friend, the composer Darius Milhaud, can only be equalled by that from Arthur Honegger who admired 'the man, a born composer,' who, 'in the midst of 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... my paradise with its open-air cafes, its chip-sellers and its dances to the accordion'). A precocious pianist, his creativity fed on Debussy who had 'awakened him to music', Stravinsky whom 'he took as his guide', Ravel and, above all, Satie, who influenced him considerably 'more aesthetically than musically'. Though he considered Chabrier a 'grandad', the music-hall fascinated and enthralled him. For many years, Poulenc had to put up with being labelled a 'superficial' and 'light' composer. Nothing is further from the truth. His correspondence, collected by Myriam Chimènes, and the magnificent biography by Renaud Machart, both bear witness to this. ' And his music remains brazenly up-to-date.'
From the first work that he dared make public, the Rapsodie nègre, at the advanced age of nineteen years, to the very last, the Sonata for clarinet and piano and Sonatafor oboe and piano, completed shortly before his unexpected death, Francis Poulenc devoted himself intermittently to chamber music, sometimes following an urgent desire to write, sometimes in response to the wishes of virtuosi friends. He liked to say, 'To write what seems right to me, when I want to, that is my motto as a composer.'
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 Sonata for two clarinets, the Piano Sonata for four hands, the Bestiaire and Cocardes were created by a man yet to reach his twentieth birthday, who, replying to a request from his London publisher, described himself as follows: 'I was born in Paris on 7th January 1899… I 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 a necessary thing, I hate those 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 instinct, Poulenc was 'like all Latins... more into harmony than counterpoint.' Though he had refused to join the Schola Cantorum or the Conservatoire, to increase his knowledge he turned to Charles Koechlin, a musician more renowned as a teacher than a composer. From the four years, 1921-25, when he concentrated on improving -among other things -his knowledge of counterpoint, Poulenc has left us a Sonata for clarinet and bassoon, a Sonata for horn, trumpet and trombone and a Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano. The chamber music was definitively associated with wind instruments.
Following a fairly long period when he moved away from the genre, Poulenc set out to write for strings and piano, The Sonata for piano and cello was first written in 1940 and reworked eight years later, whilst his Sonata for violin and piano was first performed in 1943 with Ginette Neveu at the violin. From this same period date L 'histoire de Babar and Poulenc's collaboration with the dramatist Jean Anouilh, for whom he composed the incidental music for Léocadia and L 'invitation au château. The start of the 1950s saw the creation of a profusion of pieces for two pianos for les boys, the American pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale: L 'embarquement pour Cythère, a capriccio in the style of Le bal masque, the Sonata and the Elégie. From 1956 Poulenc renewed his relationship with 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 Bemac. 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, for clarinet and piano and for oboe and piano each represent a poignant homage to a dear departed friend.
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 martiage 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' .Celebrating Poulenc means also 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 got together to share their latest creations, to eat, drink and have a good laugh. But good spirits are not enough: seeing this project through, from its conception to the last recording, took no less than two years and offers an opportunity to appreciate the vitality of the young French school of chamber music.
The Capriccio d'apres Le bal masque for two pianos was composed in 1952 and published in 1953 by Rouart, Lerolle & Co., Salabert. Though this adaptation for two pianos of the finale of Le bal masque is faithful overall to the original, this essentially pianistic rewriting allows us to appreciate the care with which Poulenc used the powerful, richly varied sound palette of the pianos working together. This Capriccio is dedicated to Samuel Barber whose Piano Sonata Poulenc had so appreciated two years earlier and from which he had created (with Bernac) the Mélodies passagères, Opus 27.
Poulenc's Sonata for two pianos was sketched in 1952 and completed in the spring of 1953. It was first performed on 2nd November 1953 in London's Wigmore Hall and published in 1954 by Max Eschig. It is dedicated to American pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale 'as much with friendship as with admiration'. On 17th September 1955, at their request for a few words to introduce his sonata to the American public, Poulenc confided to les boys: 'I began with the Andante, knowing already the overall architecture of the work. Framed by a Prologue, an Allegro molto and an Epilogue, for me this Andante is the very heart of the work... a lyrical, profound burst. Sometimes drawing inspiration from my choral music writing, I have striven in places for great purity of line... The first movement is not conceived like that of a classic sonata, but as a genuine Prologue. The second theme, animé is merely a rhythmic progression intended as a foil for the lyricism of the melody - extrêmement lent in C major – which forms the middle section. The Allegro molto is a scherzo whose main interest lies in its central section - extraordinairement paisible. The Epilogue is not, strictly speaking, a finale, but a recapitulation of the other three movements, preceded by a fresh theme.' Poulenc was particularly fond of this Andante, written with the drawings of Matisse, one of his favourite artists, in mind. Constantly seeking the perfect line, full yet subtle colours, 'It is piano without pretence, real piano where each instrument converses with the other in perfect understanding without interrupting.' (Entretiens)
The Elègie for two pianos was composed in 1959 and published in 1960 by Eschig with a dedication 'to the memory of Marie-Blanche'. Poulenc's last piano work, this elegy, 'a mad piece in the sweet genre'... made up entirely of alternating chords, was written in memory of the great patron of the arts, Princess Marie- Blanche de Polignac, who died on 14th February 1958. It adds to the Poulenc of 1932 the complex and refined harmonies of his maturity, the grave echo of the dear departed. 'Play this elegy as if improvising, a cigar in your mouth and a glass of cognac on the piano. All the off-beat rhythms must scarcely be touched. On the whole, too much pedal must never be used,' stressed a footnote to the score. To les boys, who had financed this work, he announced on 28th September 1959: 'It's very simple, perhaps too much so for serious critics, but hard luck. To hell with them!... Think of Marie-Blanche when playing the Elègie.'
L'embarquement pour Cythère was composed in July 1951 and first performed in New York in 1952. It was published by Eschig in the same year. This waltz to the accordion, a 'surprise treat' for pianists Gold and Fizdale, is taken from the music for two pianos for the film Voyage en Amérique, with Pierre Fresnay and Yvonne Printemps. Poulenc, who usually refused film work, chose to make an exception here out of friendship for the actors. He recorded it with his old childhood friend, Jacques Fevrier, with whom he had always played works for two pianos, This very lively, very gay piece, where Cythère was nothing other than 'the banks of the Marne within the range of the Paris Metro', Poulenc considered his most 'Dufy-like' work.
The Sonata for piano duet was composed in June 1918 in Boulogne-sur-Seine and revised in 1939. It was first heard on 21st December 1918 and was published in 1919/39 by Chester, with a dedication 'to Mademoiselle Simone Tilliard'. A childhood friend from Nogent, the pianist Simone Tilliard took part in several concerts featuring first performances of the young Poulenc's works. In the end-of-war Parisian atmosphere, in the great artistic upheaval of the liberated avant-gardists, Poulenc produced a work that was concise and frank, jovial, fine and French in spirit, with glimpses of the shades of Stravinsky, Satie and Chabrier. This sonata in three movements -a rhythmic Prelude, a naïve, slow Rustique and a merry Finale, marked tres vite - was first performed on 21st December 1918 at a 'Lyre and Palette' concert financed and organized by Blaise Cendrars, Pierre Bertin and Félix Delgrange. 'It was Stravinsky who got me published in London by Chester, my first publisher, the publisher... of the Sonata for two clarinets, of my Duet Sonata; all those little beginner's works, rather faltering, were published thanks to the kindness of Stravinsky, who was very much a father to me.' (Moi et mes amis)
Poulenc's Sonata for two clarinets was composed in 1918 and first heard on 5th Apri11919. It was revised in 1945 and published in 1919 by Chester. It is dedicated 'to Edouard Souberbielle'. 'In his chamber music [he] had gone back to the short sonata form, as conceived by Scarlatti, where the elements are reduced to a minimum: his Sonata for clarinet and bassoon is a marvel of precision, gaiety, charm and grace, and his Sonata for horn, trumpet and trombone is a real masterpiece. It is a work in classic balanced form with wonderful precision, the novelty of which lies in the ease with which he handles these resonant, simple elements.' (Darius Milhaud, Etudes) Poulenc had a special fondness for wind instruments, apparent from his earliest works, even before Stravinsky wrote his Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet. Magnificently original and inventive, this Sonata for two clarinets consists of three movements. a three-element Presto with an insistent opening motif, a sad, sweet, distant, drab Andante and a bounding finale, Vif, to be played 'fast - joyfully'.
The Sonata for clarinet and bassoon was composed in 1922 and first heard on 4th January 1923. Revised in March 1945, it was published in 1924 by Chester, dedicated 'to Madame Audrey Parr'. After the completion of Le bestiaire, the success of Cocardes, the scandal of Les maries de la Tour Eiffel, wishing to perfect his composition skills, Poulenc had turned to Charles Koechlin to improve his mastery of counterpoint and overall structure. The Sonatas for clarinet and bassoon and for horn, trumpet and trombone mark a return to the Poulenc of 1918 -concise, clear and sparkling. '1 think you'll really like my Sonata for clarinet and bassoon, as it's of the same stock as Sonata for two clarinets but there's a lot of writing to it,' he wrote to Milhaud in July 1922, and to Charles Koechlin that September: 'My Clarinet and Bassoon Sonata is finished. I'm pleased with it. The counterpoint is sometimes quite amusing'. In a fast-slow-fast structure similar to the Sonata for two clarinets, the Sonata for clarinet and bassoon has a 'very rhythmic' Allegro, a melancholic Romance - a really 'very gentle Andante' and a 'very lively' Final.
Poulenc's Sonata for horn, trumpet and trombone was composed in 1922 and first performed on 4th January 1923. It was published in 1924 by Chester and dedicated 'to Mademoiselle Raymonde Linossier'. Poulenc was particularly attached to his childhood friend Raymonde Linossier, the 'true intellectual leavening' of his adolescence who 'like me loves chips, pianolas, coloured lithographs, sea-shell boxes and Paris'. This taste for the fairground shared by the Six and idealised by Cocteau, who looked forward to 'an orchestra without the tender sound of strings. A rich band with woodwind, brass and percussion' (Le Coq et l'Arlequin), may be seen in the choice of unusual instruments, as in the sometimes mocking nature of the harmonies. The Sonata in three movements -fast-slow- fast -opens with an Allegro moderato 'grazioso', utterly youthful in its vigour; 'The Andante makes you cry!!!!!!' while a lively Rondeau makes friendly fun of melodies of classic contour, spicing them with discords and adorably 'wrong' harmonies. The reactions of the first audience seem to have been lively- 'Very bizarre reception for the Sonata, some whistles, some ironic 'encores', but overall amazement- The end of the one with the brass provoked a huge roar of laughter followed by pah! pah! pah! parodying the trombone.' Poulenc added that the main thing was that Koechlin liked his work, finding it well-written.
Ronald Van Spaendonck
Close the window