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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano, FP 43 (1926) [12:43]
Sextet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn and Piano, FP 100 (1932-9) [18:08]
Sonata for Flute and Piano, FP 164 (1956-7) [12:46]
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, FP 184 (1962) [14:39]
Sonata for Oboe and Piano, FP 185 (1962) [14:03]
Ensemble Arabesques
Paul Rivinius (piano)
rec. 2018, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, Germany
FARAO CLASSICS B108103 [72:48]

This was my first exposure to Ensemble Arabesques, a wind ensemble composed of Eva Maria Thiébaud, flute; Nicolas Thiébaud, oboe; Gaspare Buonomano, clarinet; Pascal Deuber, horn; and Christian Kunert, bassoon. They are partnered here by pianist Paul Rivinius. Since 2011 the ensemble has been an active participant in the German-French Arabesques cultural festival launched in Hamburg. As an ensemble and as individual musicians, they are most impressive. That said, there is a great deal of competition in this repertoire on CD. One of my favourites of the past has been the Ensemble Wien-Berlin on DG, which omitted the Oboe Sonata but included the Elegy for horn and piano. Doing a movement-by-movement comparison of the two groups, I find little to prefer one over the other.

The Trio, dedicated to Manuel de Falla, is the earliest of the works here and enthralls in its exuberance with certain similarities to Poulenc’s ballet Les biches he composed two years before. At the same time, there is an especially memorable passage in the slow movement played by the bassoon (1:27-1:30), later picked up by the oboe, that Poulenc also gave to the soprano in the “Domine Deus” section of his much later Gloria. The balance among the three musicians in the Trio is exemplary, leaving little to be desired. The later and even more popular Sextet leaves a powerful impression with the horn’s ripping and brilliant playing by pianist Rivinius. The acerbic first section is quite a contrast to the songful middle one in this movement with Deuber’s horn solo noteworthy in its eloquence. After all the high spirits and humour of the Prestissimo finale, the pensive ending comes as quite a shock. Is this Poulenc playing the “sad clown,” or a result of the composer’s visit to the sanctuary of Rocamadour in 1936? The rapport of the musicians here is palpable, but it helps to listen to these works with the volume control set down a bit because of the closeness of the recording. I noticed the same thing with other recordings of these works, too, including the Wien-Berlin accounts.

Of the three sonatas for solo winds and piano, the Flute Sonata is the best known and a staple for professional flutists. This joyous work is also tinged with melancholy, but of the three it is the most obviously tuneful. I am really taken with Eva Maria Thiébaud’s performance and prefer her to Wolfgang Schulz in the Wien-Berlin account. She has a sweeter tone and plays with less pronounced vibrato than her German counterpart. The Oboe Sonata and Clarinet Sonata were two of Poulenc’s last compositions and neither was published or even premiered before the composer’s death. While both sonatas have their high spirits, the Clarinet Sonata is the peppier of the two, but with an especially haunting theme in its slow movement. Poulenc dedicated the Oboe Sonata to Prokofiev, whose influence is apparent in the Scherzo second movement. This piece is more serious than the others, wistful and contemplative in the outer movements. Clarinetist Buonomano has a nice, woody sound and does not overblow. The oboist, whose higher pitches can be piercing, has a very attractive, mellow tone in his lower register. Rivinius excels in the piano part here as elsewhere.

For this particular programme, these performances are fully competitive and provide much enjoyment. They should satisfy most Poulenc fans. If one wishes to explore further, Naxos has a five-volume series containing all of the composer’s chamber works including the more rarely performed Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon and Sonata for Horn, Trumpet, and Trombone, among others.

Leslie Wright
Previous reviews: Michael Cookson ~ Stephen Greenbank

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