POULENC Complete Chamber Works
It is somewhat remarkable that amoung all the commemorations throughout 1999 of the centenary of Poulenc's birth no new recordings appeared in the UK of any of the chamber music. The reissues in Vol 2 of EMI's Poulenc Edition of the majority of these, from performances (mostly of 1976) by distinguished French artists, seem to have inhibited others from approaching this area of Poulenc's output. A trifle late in the day, but no less welcome, our own splendid Nash Ensemble now challenges the EMI collection with equally outstanding performances, moreover trumping EMI's card by herding the complete chamber music onto two discs instead of bundling it together with the piano music on EMI's five CDs (surely a questionable move, seeing that this replaced its two-disc chamber works issue reviewed in 12/89). And the recorded quality is undeniably superior: the Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano from the French team was unpleasantly dry in sound and not well balanced, and the Sextet suffered similarly.
Invidious as it may seem to pick out just one of these excellent artists, special mention must be made of Ian Brown, who plays in nine of the 13 works included and confirms his standing as one of the most admired and musicianly chamber pianists of our day. He knows, for example, how to control Poulenc's boisterous piano writing in the Sextet without sacrificing the sparkle, and as a result the work coheres better than ever before. Like the Trio (whose opening reveals Stravinskian influence), it is a mixture of the composer's madcap gamin mood and his predominantly melancholy bittersweet lyricism. The latter characteristic is most in evidence in his most enduring chamber works, the solo wind sonatas with piano, all three of which were in the nature of tombeaux - the Flute Sonata for the American patron Mrs Sprague Coolidge, that for clarinet for Honegger, that for oboe for Prokofiev. All are given idiomatic, sensitive and deeply satisfying performances by the Nash artists. The Elegie for Dennis Brain was a not altogether convincing experiment in dodecaphony: Poulenc had earlier dabbled in atonality and polytonality in the little sonatas (really sonatinas) for, respectively, two clarinets and for clarinet and bassoon.
There is a touching reading of the little Sarabande for guitar. A hint of the guitar's tuning at the start of the second movement is almost the only Spanish reference in the Violin Sonata, which was composed in memoriam the poet Lorca, whose loss is bitterly suggested in the angry finale. In this work Poulenc allotted to the piano (his own instrument) rather more than equal status in the duo - a situation rather paralleled in the lighthearted Cello Sonata, over which the composer dallied longer than any other of his works - but balance in both is finely judged by the performers and the recording team. The whole issue wins my enthusiastic recommendation: it bids fair to become the undisputed yardstick for the future.'