Les Vents Français: Winds and Piano
Two favourites (of mine, at any rate) frame this three-CD set of wind-ensemble pieces from Les Vents Français. The fact that they are also superbly played and instinctively characterised from the stylistic point of view should not be a cause for surprise when you see that the group of players comprises such illustrious musicians as the flautist Emmanuel Pahud, clarinettist Paul Meyer, oboist François Leleux and bassoonist Gilbert Audin, with Radovan Vlatkovic´ on horn and Eric Le Sage on piano. This is a positive dream team, who not only capture the music’s individual spirit but also clearly enjoy doing so.
They start off with Poulenc’s Sextet of 1932, a work that has the capacity to win over even the most impatient Poulenc-sceptic with its joie de vivre and its blend of charm and effervescence. Then at the end of the recital comes Rimsky-Korsakov’s Quintet of 1876, dating to the time when Rimsky, having been appointed inspector of naval bands, steeped himself in a study of wind instruments and produced not only this Quintet but also the concertos for trombone, oboe and clarinet. He was not, perhaps, as assured in his writing for piano. The Quintet is a work with flaws; but in a generous performance such as this one from Les Vents Français they are effectively disguised so that the first movement, for instance, comes across with the brio Rimsky must have intended rather than being bogged down, as can sometimes happen, by the piano’s weightiness. Even the dutiful fugue in the central movement is given mellifluous shape and thoughtful colouring here.
The second disc is the centrepiece of the set with its exceptionally well-defined and balanced interpretations of Mozart’s piano-and-wind Quintet of 1784 and Beethoven’s of 1796. But there are some rarities here, too. In the piano-writing of her 1852 C minor Sextet, the French composer Louise Farrenc reveals her debt to the likes of Hummel but the woodwind instruments are likewise treated considerately and with alertness to timbre, particularly in a beguiling slow movement. The Quintet (1899) by André Caplet perhaps shows why he is more famous as a friend and orchestrator of Debussy, and Ludwig Thuille’s B flat Sextet (1888) cannot really shake off an influence from Brahms. But the set as a whole is a compelling compendium of creative variety unified by matchless musicianship.