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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Les Biches, FP 36 – Suite [19:38]
Les Animaux Modèles, FP 111 – Suite [20:33]
Sinfonietta FP 141 [25:24]
RTE National Symphony Orchestra/Jean-Luc Tingaud
rec. 2017, National Concert Hall, Dublin
NAXOS 8.573739 [65:38]

In the course of his career Poulenc wrote two full ballets as well as contributing to L’Évantail de Jeanne and Les Mariés de la Tour d’Eiffel. Neither of the two works on this disc, Les Biches and Les Animaux Modèles, falls into the category of narrative ballets. Each consists of a series of dances and scenes which are held together by both Poulenc’s skill and wit, and by the use of quotations from both other composers and from Poulenc himself. [see link for Les Biches program note by Paul Serotsky].

Les Biches was written when the composer was 23 and helped to establish him on the Parisian musical scene. Poulenc took the five most interesting sections from the original ballet to form the suite. The ballet deals with various then-taboo subjects including lesbianism and gender-fluidity. The double entendre of the title explains why the English translation is never used.

Les Biches opens with a Rondeau whose first notes betray the composer’s admiration for Stravinsky but quickly settles into Poulenc’s own style – satirical but with a gentle side. The Adagietto describes one of the ballet’s main characters, the androgynous Girl in Blue; it is sensual but shifting harmonically. This is followed by the music for the Hostess at whose estate the ballet takes place, and a quote from Chopin (Poulenc at his most satirical). The Andantino is neo-classical and at the beginning of the ‘Final’, Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 is directly quoted. Poulenc combines Mozart with his own material with great wit before dismissing the whole ballet with a final satirical stroke.

Almost twenty years later Poulenc wrote his second ballet. Instead of the fervour and exploration of Paris in the twenties there was the fear and drabness of the Occupation. Les Animaux Modèles again lacks a linear plot and again there are quotations, but the work is much more serious than its predecessor. The original ballet had eight sections from which the composer extracted six for the suite.

Les Animaux Modèles is based on fables by the great Jean de La Fontaine which use animals as characters. For his ballet Poulenc has humanized each of the characters. The opening is a perfect example of the composer’s mature style while ‘Le Lion Amoureux (Passionment animé)’ is all the more passionate because Poulenc quotes from the song ‘Non, Non, Vous n’aurez pas l’Alsace et la Lorraine’ (You shall not have Alsace and Lorraine). Fortunately, the Nazis were not familiar with French popular song, but the inclusion of this song is a tribute to Poulenc’s courage and patriotism. In ‘L’Homme entre deux âges et ses deux maîtresses’ Poulenc the Boulevardier makes an appearance, but things grow serious again in the next and longest section ‘La Mort et le Bûcheron’. Here Death is humanized as a grand lady (cf. #15 in Bliss’ ballet Adam Zero) and one is further reminded of the Occupation by Poulenc’s interpolation of references to his great Mass in G of 1937. ‘Les Deux Coqs’ begins in amusing fashion with a distinctive use of percussion but becomes almost tragic by its end. ‘Le Repas du Midi’ returns to the mood of the work’s beginning but chastened and again the seriousness increases to a noble finale.

If Les Animaux Modèles is a product of the Occupation, the Sinfonietta dates from the more optimistic late forties when Poulenc’s reputation as a serious composer was consolidated, although perhaps earlier in Britain and America than in France itself. In 1947 Poulenc had completed a string quartet but was displeased with the result and threw it away. Almost immediately afterwards he received a commission for an orchestral work from the BBC. He reconstructed the quartet for orchestral forces and was much happier with his Sinfonietta than he had been with the quartet. The opening Allegro shows that Poulenc was wrong about his original material or perhaps that he had greatly improved upon that original material. Especially notable is the movement’s beautiful second theme. The scherzo section is less impressive, though somewhat attractive. The Andante cantabile is the work’s highlight, with some of the feeling of Les Animaux Modèles and, like the first movement, with a beautiful second theme. The Finale alternates humor with passionate interludes with a wonderful final synthesis before a piquant coda.

Jean-Luc Tingaud has already recorded discs of Dukas [review ~ review] and Bizet [review] for Naxos, with the RTE orchestra as well as a disc of D’Indy with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra [review]. On this disc I found some of his tempi a little questionable, especially in Les Animaux Modèles, but he was much better in the Sinfonietta. The RTE players bring a shimmering tone to the two ballets that is exactly right and the brass are excellent throughout. The sound in the National Concert Hall in Dublin unfortunately does not do justice to the players’ sound. It is to be hoped that Tingaud and the orchestra will continue exploring French music, perhaps with slightly less recorded composers such as Koechlin or Chabrier.

William Kreindler

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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