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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 Chamber Music Hall, Cologne
FARAO CLASSICS B108103 [72:48]

Aside from the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1943) and the Sonata for Cello and Piano (1949), Poulenc’s remaining chamber works all spotlight one or more wind instruments. Singing was close to his heart and for him this group of instruments was the nearest thing to the human voice. In common with other early twentieth century composers he felt that the prominence accorded the woodwinds lent a distinctive "French sound" to the music, clothing it in manifold colouristic hues. From 1918 he wrote sonatas for one or more wind instruments. The works on this disc, however, all feature them in combination with the piano.

The earliest is the Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano written in 1926 and dedicated to Manuel de Falla. It took five years to complete, and its three movements conform to the fast-slow-fast mould. This well-crafted score is the embodiment of what I take from much of the composer's music, namely exuberance, wit and radiance, wrapped up in Gallic charm. Playful and teasing sums up the opening movement and finale, with a lyrically soulful central movement providing some welcome contrast. The Sextet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn and Piano, which occupied Poulenc from 1932-1939, is etched on similar lines. The slow movement is particularly distinctive for its memorable melody, and the finale's madcap capers never fail to raise a smile. The instrumental combination works very well, and is tangible proof of a skilful hand at work.

The Sonata for Flute and Piano has always featured prominently in the 20th century flute repertoire. Dedicated to the American arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, it was composed for the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, and he and Poulenc premiered it at the Strasbourg Music Festival in June 1957. The work panders to the French love of the instrument and this, together with its fluent writing, accounts for its enduring popularity. The first movement has a hint of melancholy and regret. The Cantilena second movement casts a dreamlike spell over the listener, whilst the finale is good-humoured and chirpy. The Sonata for Oboe and Piano, the last work Poulenc wrote, was also premiered at the Strasbourg Music Festival, this time in 1963, a few months after the composer's death. The work’s dedicatee was Serge Prokofiev, and publication was posthumous. The opening movement is a serene elegy based on a simple four-note motif. The composer seems to have had Prokofiev at the front of his mind in the spiky Scherzo that follows. The unusual finale is marked Déploration: Très calme and is a lament-like chant, which at the end peters away to nothing. Poulenc died suddenly of a heart attack on 30 January 1963. A year earlier he had penned his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, dedicated to the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger. The work was premiered by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall on 10 April 1963 and again published posthumously. It's a delightful work, tonal and accessible. The central Romanza is particularly striking for its hypnotic simplicity, with the third movement having a touch of 'send in the clowns'.

These delicious chamber works are lovingly brought to life by members of the Ensemble Arabesques, who are joined by Paul Rivinius on piano. I could think of no better advocates. The polish of their performances is outstanding, and sound and balance is everything it should be.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Michael Cookson

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