FRANÇAIX Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano Theme and Variations for Clarinet and Piano. Rhapsody for Viola and Piano (arr. Françaix). Five Portraits of Young Girls for Piano. Trio di Colore (Guy Yehuda, cl; Yuval Gotlibovich, va; Jimmy Brière, pn) XXI 21580 (49:27)
For those who seek to compartmentalize composers into neatly defined groups that share certain aesthetic values—e.g., “The Mighty Five,” “Les Six,” and the Second Viennese School—(and I admit, I’m one of them), Jean Françaix (1912–97) defies easy categorization. It would be convenient to lump him in with “Les Six” because his music does display characteristics similar to those of Poulenc, Milhaud, and Honegger. There is much of that same strain of insolence mixed with arch-innocent insouciance that similarly allowed Noel Coward to get away with being naughty by being droll, or what Time Magazine described as “a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise.” The description fits the music as well.
Françaix came a little later than “Les Six,” but not much. He was one of Nadia Boulanger’s prized pupils, a friend and frequent musical partner of Poulenc, and a tremendously prolific composer whose music is said to be “in a light neoclassical style that displays the wit and clarity of the traditional Gallic spirit.” That is certainly borne out by the works on this disc. Over six decades—from the 1936 Five Portraits of Young Girls to the 1997 Clarinet Trio that opens the program—Françaix’s style changed very little.
The five-movement Trio begins with a Prélude fragrant with the Provençe-scented air familiar from a number of works by Milhaud. From there (Allegrissimo) it’s off to Paris where we’re whisked through the red-like district to take in a risqué cabaret act on a busy night at the Moulin Rouge. The playful Scherzando, with its quirky pizzicatos and off-beat rhythms is like a visit to the Picasso Museum to view the portraits of women with crossed eyes, fractured jaws, and noses out of joint. Late night comes in the eerie Largo as we wander the empty, lonely streets, while creepy chromatic scales appear and then vanish like distant mirages. Milhaud again comes to the fore in the concluding Presto with its jazz-inflected rhythms and dance-hall rumba-like rumblings.
The 1974 Theme and Variations could almost be a study or early sketch for the Trio; for it’s as if Françaix took each of the variations and expanded it into one of the movements in the later work. All of the elements in the above-described Trio are present here in encapsulated form.
The Rhapsody, as heard here, is a 1993 arrangement by the composer for viola and piano of an earlier 1946 work for viola and winds. Here the musical connection seems closer to Honegger than to Poulenc or Milhaud. There is even a passing glance or two at Prokofiev and Shostakovich The piece is a bit weightier and less whimsical, its musical content characterized by motor rhythms and a greater concentration on Bachian counterpoint.
For the earliest written work on the disc, the Five Portraits of Young Girls (1936), Françaix looks back, at least in intent, to the type of keyboard character pieces found in the works of François Couperin. With titles like La Capricieuse and La Tendre, each of the five portraits draws a generalized or non-specific personality profile. It seems, however, that Françaix was more interested in painting his musical portraits of the female of the species with a broad brush as opposed to Couperin who had in mind actual living women whom he knew.
My one and only complaint about this short-playing CD is that I wish it could have given us more Françaix to savor and that it could have gone on longer; for every piece here is a sheer delight, and the playing, especially that of clarinetist Guy Yehuda, is phenomenal. This is not to shortchange the contributions of violist Yuval Gotlibovich or pianist Jimmy Brière. The three musicians met at the Indiana University School of Music and subsequently formed the Trio di Colore. As an ensemble and as independent soloists, they have won numerous prizes and performed extensively in the U.S., Canada, and Israel. This appears to be their first commercial recording together. If so, it’s a tantalizing promise of things to come.
Françaix’s Clarinet Trio has been recorded before by a group calling itself the Bruch Trio on Summit Records. I haven’t heard that version, but I have heard the recording of the Theme and Variations for Clarinet and Piano on Camerata with members of Ensemble Wien-Berlin, and it too is a real charmer, though my sense is that the Germans don’t swing quite as freely as Yehuda does. As for the Rhapsody in its viola and piano arrangement and the Five Portraits, I don’t know of any other recordings.
This new XXI disc is a winner. It can make a great starter for those unfamiliar with Françaix, or a fine addition to the collections of those who have already had a taste of this delightful French composer’s music. Jerry Dubins