Two movements from ‘Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel’ (1921, revised 1957)
Pastourelle from L’Éventail de Jeanne (1927)
Les Animaux modèles (complete ballet) (1940-42)
BBC Concert Orchestra / Bramwell Tovey
Chandos CHSA5260 [74’22″’]
Producer Brian Pidgeon Engineers Ralph Couzens, Alexander James
Recorded 10-12 March 2022 at Watford Colosseum
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
What’s the story?
This collection of colourful works for orchestra by Francis Poulenc has as its main work the ballet Les Animaux modèles, based on The Fables of Jean de la Fontaine. A vibrant work, it clearly had huge significance for the composer, who started on its composition after the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940, his aim ‘to find a reason to hope for the future of my country’. It received its first performance at the Paris Opera in 1942.
The ballet is symbolic, summarised in Nigel Simeone’s excellent booklet note about ‘a celebration of France’s past at its most lustrous’ than a collection of charming animal stories. It does however bring the story to life from the outset, with a vivid description of the dawn cutting to sharply characteristic portrayals of The Bear and The Two Companions, the former portrayed through an excellent horn solo, The Grasshopper and the Ant, The Amorous Lion, The Middle-aged Man and His Two Mistresses, Death and the Woodcutter, The Two Cockerels and finally The Midday Meal.
Complementing the ballet is the Sinfonietta, written for the BBC Third Programme and first heard in 1948. Initially the main themes of the work were to be part of a String Quartet that Poulenc was working on in 1945, but after its abandonment his friend and fellow-composer Georges Auric recognised the potential of the musical material. The work is dedicated to him in acknowledgement.
Completing the disc are two movements from Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, a collaborative single act ballet with Auric and the other members of composer collective Les Six, of which Poulenc was a leading member. There is also a soft-centred Pastourelle from another such collaborative piece, L’Éventail de Jeanne.
Very sadly this is the final recording made by the BBC Concert Orchestra’s principal conductor, Bramwell Tovey – completed just four months before his sad death from cancer at the age of 69.
What’s the music like?
In a word, colourful. Les animaux modèles is unquestionably the star turn, brilliantly played and characterised in this recording. Poulenc’s music is richly tuneful and beautifully orchestrated, often showing the influence of Stravinsky but realised with his own flair and mischievous humour. The central section of The Grasshopper and The Ant is a case in point, where a thrillingly brisk section cuts to an enchanting violin cadenza, the music briefly held in a spell until its release by shrill trumpets.
The Amorous Lion is a scene of great contrasts, with orchestral outbursts and volleys of percussion cutting to tender asides from string and woodwind choirs. The most substantial section – and arguably music – can be found in The Two Cockerels, where Poulenc realises music of great power and depth to portray the combat of the two birds. The surging climactic point, halfway through, is music of particularly strong feeling and resolve, Poulenc’s sentiments against the war reaching their heartfelt climax – before powerful exchanges between brass and the final toll on low piano. With passions largely spent, The Midday Meal provides a regal epilogue.
The slighter movements are no less fun, and The Middle-aged Man and his Two Mistresses scurries along furtively. Following Poulenc’s synopsis is enormously helpful, signposting the composer’s pictorial responses to the storyline as well as emphasising his wit.
In spite of its name, the Sinfonietta is one of Poulenc’s most substantial compositions. Far from being a slight, frothy work, it has a big-boned structure easily outdoing those dimensions, lasting nearly half an hour. Its convincing melodic arguments are led by the assertive first theme, drawing parallels with the Organ Concerto for its bite and resolve, while the second theme, beautifully realised here, brings mellow woodwind colouring. The second movement is a lively scherzo, balanced with tender asides that are fully realised in the slow third movement, a lyrical and colourful Andante cantabile. The brisk finale signs off with a flourish.
The two movements from Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel are short but mischievous and entertaining, with humourous trombone interventions, while the Pastourelle is a charming addition.
Does it all work?
Yes. These are fresh, vibrant performances given with evident affection by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Bramwell Tovey brings out the colourful orchestrations, allows the lyrical melodies a bit of heart-on-sleeve approach where appropriate, and brings rhythmically sharp responses too. Poulenc’s colourful writing is brought to the fore, along with the melancholic undertones his music often carries.
Is it recommended?
Yes, on many levels. The quality of the music, the excellent Chandos recordings from Watford Colosseum and some very fine performances from which Bramwell Tovey takes his lead. The icing on the cake is the choice of Henri Rousseau’s Monkeys and Parrot in Virgin Forest as cover art. It is the ideal complement for a wonderful album.
For more information and purchasing options on this release, visit the Chandos website