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Francaix: The Music for Solo Piano, Duo & Duet

Francaix / Jones / Mcmahon / Farmer
Release Date: 08/14/2012 
Label:  Nimbus   Catalog #: 5880   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin JonesRichard McMahonAdrian Farmer
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 3 Hours 10 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

FRANÇAIX Scherzo. 5 Portraits de jeunes filles. Eloge de la danse. Piano Sonata. 5 Encores. Danse des 3 Arlequins. 8 Variations. Nocturne. 3 Equisses sur les touches blanches. La Promenade d’un Musicologue Eclectique. De la Musique avant tout chose. Pour Jacqueline. Si Versailles m’etait conté. Scuola di Ballo. 1 8 Danses exotiques. 1 15 Portraits d’enfants d’Auguste Read more Renoir. 2 Napoléon 2 Martin Jones, 1 Richard McMahon, 2 Adrian Farmer (pn) NIMBUS NI 5880/2 (3 CDs: 19:05)

Had Jean Françaix been born a decade or so earlier, we would be referring to Les Sept rather than Les Six. As it was, the French-polished and long-lived composer (1912–97) followed in the footsteps of his slightly older confrères, particularly Poulenc, in typifying the French style of his era: witty, light-hearted, and insouciant. Françaix’s music derives from the bouncy rhythms and diatonic melodies of French folk music, but mixes in the vulgarity of the boulevard, the harmonic asperity of Stravinsky, and an occasional hint of 1920s jazz, all done with assured craftsmanship. While many of his concertos have been recorded—the best-known are the sprightly Piano Concertino (1932) and the Clarinet Concerto—Françaix’s output for solo piano has not. The only previous recordings I discovered are by Annette Middlebeek on a hard-to-find Koch disc from 2001, and another from 2008 by Nicole Narboni on the obscure label CDBY, which I have never heard of. (The latter recital is intriguingly promoted as “Narboni on Food, Felines, Fathers, and Jean Françaix.”) I did not manage to do any comparative listening—my order of the Koch disc failed to materialize by deadline— but in any case this new Nimbus set trumps both in terms of completeness alone.

Although Françaix was an expert orchestrator, probably more skilled than Poulenc, whose Story of Babar the Elephant he arranged for orchestra, the younger composer first made his mark as a pianist. He continued to play throughout his life, not only his own works but also music by other composers, often teaming with the cellist Maurice Gendron. Many of his compositions involve piano, and I notice a three-disc set of chamber music with the composer at the piano is scheduled to be released late in 2012 (this being the year of Françaix’s centenary, of course).

Meanwhile, we have the indefatigable Martin Jones to bring us up to speed on the keyboard works. The set opens with the early, mostly staccato Scherzo, a favorite of the composer that he played often, and it shows him at his most deft in its clarity and harmonic sleight of hand. The Scherzo sets the tone for the rest of the program and is tossed off with perfect élan here by Jones. Françaix preferred miniatures, and many of the larger works are in fact suites made up of several short movements. Some, such as the oddly titled Promenade d’un Musicologue Eclectique , are composed of tributes to other composers such as Chopin, Ravel, and Adam. Françaix always sounds like himself, but Ravel was clearly a major influence along with Chabrier and, to some extent, Satie. We might expect a work titled Piano Sonata to be more serious in tone but that expectation is quickly dashed; the first movement scampers off like a French poodle. (The same thing happens in the composer’s one symphony.) The sonata’s second movement (Elégie) features an Impressionistic bell-like accompaniment. Timing is one of the composer’s finest assets: Nothing outstays its welcome, and just as one might be tiring of high spirits a pensive moment of lyricism comes along, like the lovely “La Tendre” in the Five Portraits of Young Girls suite. The gentle Nocturne’s arpeggiated left hand registers like updated Fauré, and it is this piece, the composer’s final composition for solo piano (1994), that brings the first disc to a close.

In the duo and two-piano works Jones is joined by Richard McMahon or Adrian Farmer. The Eight Exotic Dances of 1957 draw on popular Latin and jazz forms. The final movement is titled Rock’n’roll but it is far more jazz than rock, a musical genre too earthy for the fastidious Françaix, I suspect. Napoléon and Si Versailles m’etait conté are two-piano arrangements of music from films, while Scuola di ballo is a ballet score from 1933, which, 30 years later, the composer reworked for himself and his daughter Claude to play. The resulting score is more elaborate than a mere reduction, as you will hear if you compare it to the orchestral version recorded by Thierry Fischer and the Ulster Orchestra (Hyperion). It draws on music by Boccherini in much the same way as Stravinsky reinterpreted Pergolesi in Pulcinella , and forms a joyous finale to the program.

Devotees of piano music and avowed completists owe a lot to Martin Jones, truly one of the finest of British pianists. For Nimbus he has recorded a good deal of Spanish music (including multiple discs of Mompou), a Czerny series, Szymanowski, and several others. He is a sparkling technician, but beyond that he always manages to sound utterly sympathetic in the music he chooses to record. His partners in this enterprise are equally at home; McMahon, for one, has a formidable reputation in duet work. Nimbus’s recording strikes me as perfect; as usual, there is air around the sound but it is never muddy, always crisp, and suits the piano to a T. While it may be asking too much to listen to the three discs straight through (though I did so without any ill effect, several times), this is undoubtedly a delightful set to dip into and certainly a significant addition to the catalog.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott
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Works on This Recording

Scherzo by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin Jones (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1932; France 
Length: 2 Minutes 16 Secs. 
Portraits (5) de jeunes filles by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin Jones (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1936; France 
Length: 12 Minutes 16 Secs. 
Eloge de la danse: Six epigraphes de Paul Valery by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin Jones (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1947; France 
Length: 10 Minutes 41 Secs. 
Sonata for Piano by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin Jones (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1960; France 
Length: 9 Minutes 9 Secs. 
Cinq "bis" (Five "encores"), for piano by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin Jones (Piano)
Length: 8 Minutes 15 Secs. 
Danse des trois Arlequins by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin Jones (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1959; France 
Length: 1 Minutes 57 Secs. 
Variations (8) for piano on the name of Johannes Gutenberg by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin Jones (Piano)
Period: Modern 
Length: 7 Minutes 28 Secs. 
Nocturne for piano by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin Jones (Piano)
Written: 1994 
Length: 4 Minutes 25 Secs. 
Danses exotiques (8) for 2 Pianos by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Richard McMahon (Piano), Martin Jones (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1957; France 
Date of Recording: 06/22/2011 
Venue:  Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, England 
Length: 9 Minutes 56 Secs. 
Quinze portraits d'enfants d'Auguste Renoir, for 2 pianos by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Adrian Farmer (Piano), Martin Jones (Piano)
Written: 1972 
Venue:  Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, England 
Length: 10 Minutes 59 Secs. 
Esquisses sur les touches blanches by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin Jones (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1983; France 
Length: 4 Minutes 37 Secs. 
Promenade d'un musicologue éclectique Hommage à Scarlatti by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin Jones (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1987; France 
Length: 18 Minutes 2 Secs. 
De la Musique avant tout choses by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin Jones (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1975; France 
Length: 2 Minutes 10 Secs. 
Pour Jacqueline: 1. L'été aux perrières. 2. On berce linette. 3. Les petits pas de linette. 4. Sous by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin Jones (Piano)
Written: 1922 
Length: 7 Minutes 27 Secs. 
Si Versailles m'était conté, suite for piano by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin Jones (Piano)
Written: 1953 
Length: 4 Minutes 49 Secs. 
Napoléon, suite for piano four hands by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Adrian Farmer (Piano), Martin Jones (Piano)
Written: 1954 
Venue:  Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, England 
Length: 7 Minutes 17 Secs. 
Scuola di ballo by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Martin Jones (Piano), Richard McMahon (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1933; France 
Date of Recording: 06/22/2011 
Venue:  Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, England 
Length: 6 Minutes 17 Secs. 

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