Amici Presents POULENC’S MUSINGS reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, April 3, 2009, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto

“To write what seems right to me, when I want to, that is my motto as a composer.”   Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc called his Sextet for piano and wind quintet (1932-39) “an homage to the wind instruments which I have loved from the moment I began composing.” Wind voices bring an immediate sense of characters: the bassoon, melancholy but verging on humour; the assertive horn, the sleepy oboe waking to the morning light, the idyllic flute tender as a breeze; the clarinet, rich and variously toned as honey.

The world of winds in Poulenc’s music evoke twin paradises of Parisian madcap excitement of the music-hall, Le Bal Masqué and café jazz/ragtime, and the peace of the countryside rooted in the enduring, fruitful earth. It is quintessential French music, sparkling with sophistication and consumed by a poignant sadness, the tender and nostalgic yearning for a sweetness that lives in art and memories.

The program of this brilliantly conceived concert displays the wealth of Poulenc’s composing life. The Sonata for clarinet and bassoon (1922) is an early fruit of Poulenc’s decision to balance his native gift for melody and harmony with further studies in counterpoint. Joaquin Valdepeñas—clarinet and Michael Sweeney—bassoon interwove voices both subtle and direct to bring out the cartoonish jokiness, the romantic sweetness, and the shifting conceptions of this very difficult piece.

Sarah Jeffrey—oboe, and Serouj Kradjian—piano, joined Sweeney to play Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon which Poulenc had worked on from 1921-1928. It is the most beautiful of Poulenc’s chamber works of this period, and marks the start of his lifelong practice of including the richness of the piano to his chamber textures. The work shows a careful attention to the composer’s chosen models—his friend Stravinsky’s neo-classical sense of the piano, and the structural examples of Haydn and Saint-Saëns. The Amici musicians tuned into both the madcap velocity and the serious depths of the music. They realized the clarity of voice Poulenc worked for, the instinctive poignancy of his melodies and delicacy of his feeling, the unity of his design.

David Hetherington joined Serouj Kradjian for a late work that Poulenc laboured over for eight years, the Sonata for cello and piano (1940-48). The achingly beautiful opening melody given by the cello establishes a sense of deep heartedness. Against this, the piano poises urbane melodies, imitative passages, and crashing chords. Hetherington executes some surprising whistles, thrilling glissandos, and passages of unsurpassable softness. The performers achieve an excellent balance of melody and accompaniment, motion and richness.

The evening was closed by Poulenc’s late ‘40’s collaboration with dramatist Jean Anouilh—L’Histoire de Babar, told by narrator Steven Page with Serouj Kradjian at the piano. Page read well, animating the words, and Kradjian impressed with his virtuosity in making those words live through music in which we can hear all the sophistication and the sweetness of Poulenc.

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