The Gaudier Ensemble - Jean Françaix: L'heure du berger; Divertissement; Clarinet Quintet; A huit (1998)

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The Gaudier Ensemble - Jean Françaix: L'heure du berger; Divertissement; Clarinet Quintet; A huit (1998)

Jean Françaix: L'heure du berger; Divertissement; Clarinet Quintet; A huit (1998)
EAC | FLAC | Image (Cue&Log) ~ 253 Mb (incl 5%) | Mp3 (CBR320) ~ 151 Mb (incl 5%) | Scans included
Genre: Classical, Chamber | Label: Hyperion | # CDA67036 | Time: 01:02:35

Jean Françaix: a quintessentially French composer following in the tradition of Saint-Saëns, Poulenc and Satie; composer of some one-hundred-and-fifty works; and virtuoso pianist in his own right. The four works on this recording were composed between 1942 (the Divertissement—very much a 'distraction' during the Nazi Occupation of France) and 1977 (the Clarinet Quintet). All four share a high degree of compositional mastery, but this is always embedded within an air of grace, of profound charm, and of wit. It is perhaps this sense of humour which has so endeared Françaix's music to generations of musicians and music-lovers. But despite the facts that L'heure du berger was composed in honour of a Parisian restaurant who were to use it as 'background' music, that Françaix self-deprecatingly passed off A huit as a 'stop-gap to fill a programme' for the Vienna Octet, and that the Divertissement contains unashamedly blatant musical jokes, these compositions are unmistakably the work of an expert, a distinctively 'Gallic' artist.

Jean Françaix (1912-1997) was one of France's gifts to twentieth-century music. Unfortunately, he was overshadowed by members of Les Six and others. Except for Germany, where his music is played with some regularity, he seems to be rarely heard in public these days (although musicians appear to love to play him when they are playing privately for their own pleasure). This is a shame because his music is always expertly crafted, unfailingly tonal and melodious, and informed with one of the keenest wits of his time. I find that I reach for his music when I need a pick-me-up. He has a light touch without being light-weight. On this disc are four marvelous chamber works played with affection and expertise by the Gaudier Ensemble, a group of musicians who are primarily principals in some of the finest European orchestras. In the final suite, 'L'heure du berger,' they are joined by pianist Susan Tomes, founder of another fine group, Domus.

'À huit' ('Octet', 1972)) for the same instrumental grouping as Schubert's famous 'Octet' (string quintet, clarinet, horn, bassoon) is a four movement work, three of which are up-tempo and definitely 'scherzando' (in its original meaning: 'joking'). The first movement begins with a melancholy main theme that leads one to believe that the movement will be some sort of dirge, but it quickly breaks out into an 'allegrissimo' main section that seems to say 'enough seriousness!' as it plunges ahead into a scamper down the Champs Élysée. This is followed by a pizzicato Scherzo whose main theme is taken directly from that of the first movement and if anything it effervesces even more than its predecessor. The flowing Andante-Largo provides a brief tuneful respite that seems to have an air of regret. But this is forgotten when IV, 'Mouvement de Valse', comes along and makes one think of elegant ladies in flowing gowns partnered by handsome men in tails as they circle the dance floor.

The four-movement 'Divertissement,' (1942) for bassoon and string quintet, is a concerto in all but name. It was composed during some of the darkest days of the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Bassoonist Robin O'Neil negotiates the work's treacherous leggiero and vivacissimo demands with grace and élan and when it comes time for his bassoon to sing, as in the lento second movement, he does so heartbreakingly. The allegro last movement - spoiler alert! - has a delightful joke ending. 'Divertissement' is followed by another concerto in all but name, the more familiar 'Clarinet Quintet' (clarinet and string quartet, 1977) and features clarinetist Richard Hosford who combines silky tone and musicianly phrasing with graceful fluidity. The third movement, one of the few completely serious movements on the entire disc, opens with a plaintive modal motive on the solo viola (sounding momentarily like it has been lifted from something by Vaughan Williams) that is taken up and elaborated soulfully by the clarinet. In one spot in the long cadenza of the last movement, there are some eerie pianissimo tremolos in the clarinet's chalumeau register that make one marvel at their beauty and wonder why one has never heard this distinctive sound before; Françaix definitely knows how to write for the unique voices of individual instruments.

The final piece, one of Françaix's best-known, is the brief, 'L'heure du berger' (1947) with its evocatively titled movements: 'Les vieux beaux,' 'Pin-up Girls,' and 'Les petits nerveux.' Lasting barely seven minutes in toto, this little suite for woodwind quintet and piano is subtitled 'Musique de Brasserie', suggesting it is background music for a bustling boîte, but indeed one suspects that even in that noisy environment diners would stop to listen to the boozy dance melodies, cheeky metrical changes and harmonic invention of this little gem. No wonder this piece is a favorite of woodwind players who are able to recruit a lucky pianist to play with them.

This entire CD is performed at the highest level. Françaix's music has suffered to some extent from musical snobs feeling it is trivial, but close inspection (and close listening) reveals that this is music not only of high polish but of high inspiration. So what if it seems not to take itself too seriously? We could perhaps use more of that.

Strongly recommended.

Review by Scott Morrison

A prodigy, the composer Jean Françaix studied with Nadia Boulanger, the great musical pedagogue of the Twentieth Century. To some extent, he follows up on the early works of Les Six – the composer group consisting of Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey, who in turn regarded Erik Satie as to some extent their musical father. The composers of the group quickly went their own individual ways. However, the group aesthetic, as articulated by Jean Cocteau, seemed to satisfy Françaix.

Françaix's music exhibits the qualities I think of as quintessentially French, with, above all, a sense of mesure – moderation, proportion. The music reveals itself in its limits, like a formal garden. It doesn't storm the heavens or strive to transcend the bonds of earth unlike, say, a Mahler symphony, its antipode. The scale remains human, rather than titanic. The composer took to heart Debussy's dictum that "music should seek, humbly, to please." Wit, tenderness, bright tunes, and surface beauty are Françaix's hallmarks.

Although he has written in large forms, I find Françaix's essence and his most affecting work in chamber music. All the items here show fastidious workmanship and, despite simple overall structures, great subtlety and elegance.

À huit ("for eight") uses the same instrumentation as the Schubert octet. The title – instead of the more usual "Octette" – may even be a pun: "Ah, oui!" It begins with a gorgeous idea – not really a melody, but more like a kid's chant, here slowed down and with the bassoon imitating the clarinet lead. It leads to a quick section with another idea of a similar type. Overall, it bustles like the soundtrack to a René Clair musical. The finale is a Parisian valse, with moments evoking hurdy-gurdy and music box. The other movements show the same tension between simple basic ideas and sophisticated, contrapuntal treatment.

The Divertissement for bassoon and string quintet, one of Françaix's most-played works, also exists in a version with string orchestra, a mini-concerto for the bassoon, which rarely gets the chance to star. The brief movements – mixing bounce with long, lyrical singing – fit the solo instrument like a Chanel suit. The amount of pathos Françaix can get in a movement under three minutes constantly surprises.

A late work (1977), the ambitious Clarinet Quintet inevitably brings up comparisons to Mozart's score. Although I haven't found any direct point of homage, Françaix probably had Mozart's piece somewhere in the back of his mind. The elegance of the writing and the equal distribution of interest among all the players recalls Mozart. The themes and the structure also are slightly more complex, although never obscure, again alternating tendresse and a boulevardier saunter. That Françaix can get so much variety out of these two basic idioms amazes me. Actually, should you ask, I prefer the Françaix to the Mozart, a fine piece, but one that doesn't hit me as deep, especially when I listen to the respective slow movements side by side. The Mozart allows the clarinet to spin out long lines, as does the Françaix, but in the latter the clarinet becomes a sage who knows what being human means. The rondo finale has a toy-march quality to it.

Françaix wrote L'heure du berger in 1947 as a kind of high-class Muzak for a noted French brasserie. It comes from a vogue for commissioning "high-class" music for various commercial enterprises like openings and fashion shows. Of course, the score was better than that, and this piece for wind quintet and piano has had a life that extended beyond its immediate circumstance. The work has three short movements: "Les vieux beaux" (roughly, Sugar Daddies), "Pin-up Girls," and "Les petites nerveux" (the little nervous ones). The score sparkle with a slight wit. The sugar daddies weave, slightly drunk, to their tables. The pin-up girls sit around languidly, soaking up male admiration and something like wolf whistles, as hearts beat faster. The finale shows perhaps the waiters scampering with trays (almost but not quite off-balance) to the customers.

The Gaudier Ensemble nails this music, and I don't think there's a Frenchman among them. They get the wit, the fun, and the layers beneath in well thought-out readings that nevertheless sound effortless. Beautifully recorded, besides.

Review by Steve Schwartz, Classical Net

The Gaudier Ensemble - Jean Françaix: L'heure du berger; Divertissement; Clarinet Quintet; A huit (1998)

The Gaudier Ensemble - Jean Françaix: L'heure du berger; Divertissement; Clarinet Quintet; A huit (1998)


A huit (1972)
Octet for clarinet, horn, bassoon, two violins, viola, cello and double bass
01. 1. Moderato - Allegrissimo (06:05)
02. 2. Scherzo - Trio (04:35)
03. 3. Andante - Adagio (04:48)
04. 4. Mouvement de Valse (05:11)

Divertissement (1942)
for bassoon and string quintet
05. 1. Vivace (02:25)
06. 2. Lento (02:48)
07. 3. Vivo assai (02:08)
08. 4. Allegro (02:24)

Clarinet Quintet (1977)
09. 1. Adagio - Allegro (07:35)
10. 2. Scherzando (06:05)
11. 3. Grave (05:07)
12. 4. Rondo (05:46)

L' heure du berger (1947)
for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano
13. 1. Les Vieux Beaux (02:14)
14. 2. Pin-up Girls (02:07)
15. 3. Les petits nerveux (03:09)

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The Gaudier Ensemble / Francaix - A huit; Divertissement; Clarinet Quintet

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Analyzed: The Gaudier Ensemble, Susan Tomes / Francaix - A huit; Divertissement; Clarinet Quintet

DR Peak RMS Duration Track
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Bitrate: 536 kbps
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Analyzed: The Gaudier Ensemble / Francaix - A huit; Divertissement; Clarinet Quintet

DR Peak RMS Duration Track
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Number of tracks: 12
Official DR value: DR14

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Bitrate: 536 kbps
Codec: FLAC

The Gaudier Ensemble - Jean Françaix: L'heure du berger; Divertissement; Clarinet Quintet; A huit (1998)

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