About this Recording
English  French  German 

French Music for Wind Instruments
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): Sextet for piano and wind quintet
Jacques Ibert (1890-1962): Trois pièces brèves
Darius Milhaud (1892-1974): La Cheminée du roi René
Jean Françaix (1912-1997): Wind Quintet No. 1

Since the early nineteenth century French composers have shown a particular skill and deftness of touch in handling wind instruments, following the pattern set at the Paris Conservatoire by Anton Reicha (1770-1836), with his preference for the textures of the quintet of different wind instruments, as opposed to the traditional doubling in sextets or octets.

Francis Poulenc only undertook formal musical training in composition in 1921 from Charles Koechlin. He had studied the piano with Ricardo Viñes and explored the music of composers that he favoured, Bach, Mozart, Satie and Stravinsky, and came to be associated with the group of friends known as Les Six, Honegger, Milhaud, Auric, Tailleferre and Durey, associates of Jean Cocteau, diverse in talent but all influenced to some extent by the eccentric and innovative Erik Satie. Poulenc’s early chamber music included a number of works for wind instruments, a preference continued throughout his career, the only exceptions being his violin sonata and cello sonata of the 1940s. The Sextet for piano and wind quintet was written in 1932 and first performed the following year. It remained unpublished, and in 1939 Poulenc revised it, completing the task as he awaited conscription. It had its first performance in Paris in December 1940. Poulenc’s own career as a performer had led, in 1935, to a partnership with the singer Pierre Bernac, and he took part in a recording of the Sextet during a tour of America in 1960. In an earlier recording, in 1952, the piano part had been played by the composer Jean Françaix.

The Sextet opens with a vigorous flourish, propelled forward by its own energy, leading to a passage of lyrical melancholy introduced by the bassoon. There is a return to the pace and panache of the opening, before the movement comes to an end. The second movement, marked Andantino, has the descriptive title Divertissement, with a rapider section at its centre. The outer sections have an unmistakably French air of poignant lyricism, set off by the playful gaiety at its heart. The mood changes at once as the final rondo surges forward, the form allowing opportunities for the cheerful display of each of the instruments, modified in the last part of the movement.

A winner of the Prix de Rome at the Paris Conservatoire, Jacques Ibert was for a number of years director of the French Academy in Rome. Versatile and prolific, he contributed as a composer to many genres of music, operas, ballets, film scores, orchestral works, songs and chamber music. In common with his contemporary compatriots he was able to write idiomatically and skilfully for wind instruments, a facility demonstrated in his early Wind Quartet, originally for two flutes, clarinet and bassoon, among other works.

Ibert’s Trois pièces brèves (Three Short Pieces), scored for wind quintet, were written in 1930. After a brief introduction the oboe leads into a jig, with a contrasting central section, resuming its dance rhythm to hurry to a close. There is a characteristically evocative opening to the Andante, a duet for flute and clarinet, before the final muted sustained note of the horn, and the last bars in which the other instruments join. Six introductory bars lead to the Allegro scherzando of the third piece, with its clarinet melody, capped by the flute, which leads the way to a Vivo, the two principal thematic elements returning in recapitulation.

Born into a Jewish family in the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence, Darius Milhaud trained at the Paris Conservatoire, originally as a violinist, before turning to composition. He enjoyed a close association with the diplomat-poet Paul Claudel, accompanying him to Brazil as secretary when the latter was appointed minister at the French delegation in Rio de Janeiro. Returning to Paris in 1918, he was one of Les Six, united by friendship rather than by a doctrinaire approach to composition. Milhaud spent the war years in America, where he taught, combining his work there with teaching at the Paris Conservatoire after the war, in spite of increasing ill-health. He spent his final years in Geneva, where he died in 1974. He was amazingly prolific as a composer, with a long list of works for the stage and for the cinema, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, songs and choral music. His last work, a Wind Quintet, is listed as Opus 443. His suite for wind quintet, La Cheminée du roi René (The Chimney of King René) was drawn from collaboration with Roger Désormières and Honegger on the score for a film, Cavalcade d’amour, which consisted of three episodes of love at different periods of history, the Middle Ages, 1830 and 1930. Milhaud chose the first with scenes evoking the cours d’amour of the fifteenth-century King René, Count of Provence and titular King of Naples, a ruler fondly remembered, who introduced the muscatel grape to the region. His Cheminée was a sheltered spot that he favoured, now one of the main streets of Aix.

Milhaud reflects the style of Stravinsky’s neoclassical Pulcinella in his suite, which opens with Cortège, a procession. The flute, accompanied by the clarinet, starts the lilting morning serenade, Aubade, followed by Jongleurs with its oboe melody. La Maousinglade is the name of the quarter where Milhaud’s family lived, and Joutes sur l’arc (Jousts on the Arc) recalls the jousts on the River Arc near Aix. Chasse à Valabre (Hunting at Valabre) turns to the King’s hunting-party by the castle of Valabre, the flute now replaced by a piccolo. The suite ends, as night falls, in the gentle nostalgia of Madrigal-Nocturne.

Jean Françaix represents a younger generation of French composers. A piano pupil of Isidore Philippe at the Paris Conservatoire, he studied composition privately with Nadia Boulanger, whose support helped the promotion of his music. He shares with Les Six wit, facility and lightness of touch, coupled with assured technique, all essentially French musical characteristics, together with great versatility. His compositions include operas, ballets, songs and choral works, orchestral music and a wide variety of chamber music, in which wind instruments play a large part. His Wind Quintet No. 1 was written in 1948 and dedicated to the Orchestre National de Paris Wind Quintet.

The Quintet opens with an Andante tranquillo introduction, dominated by the angular melodic line of the French horn, which provides the rapidly repeated notes that bring in the spirited Allegro assai, with its cascading chromatic runs and sharply marked melodies. The second movement is in the form of a scherzo, framing a trio section in which the clarinet assumes initial prominence. The coda, after the return of the scherzo, recalls elements of the trio. The third movement is in the form of a theme and variations. After a short introduction, the F sharp minor theme is entrusted first to the oboe. The flute initially treats the material in the first variation. The clarinet leads the second version of the theme, now in F sharp major and marked Andantino con moto, going on to provide a running accompaniment to the poignant flute melodic line of the following minor Lento variation. The lively syncopations of the major key fourth variation lead to the gentler minor Andante. The mood changes at once with the rapid accompanying arpeggios of the flute and clarinet to the oboe and horn melody in the Tempo di marcia francese, interrupted by a bizarre treatment of the principal motif of the movement, at first by the bassoon, soon joined by the other instruments. The music hurries forward to a final cuivré passage for the horn alone, a falling third echoed by the instruments in turn and a pianississimo concluding flourish.

Keith Anderson

Close the window