Notes and Editorial Reviews
Ode sur “La Naissance de Vénus” de Botticelli. Die Kamelien:
Kerry Stratton, cond; Sir Georg Solti C O
TOCCATA 162 (52:06)
The light yet well-crafted music of Jean Françaix is extremely popular but not well thought of by the majority of critics and academics. I’ve long loved his Wind Quintet and his
and so did Nadia
Boulanger who performed excerpts from the latter with her singers. The String Symphony (1948) is one of his happiest and most popular works, and I found myself utterly charmed by this re-acquaintance with it. Nor is it as much a piece of musical gingerbread as we often hear nowadays: Françaix wrote some very interesting chromatic harmonies and off-kilter rhythms into the score, which oddly enough bear an occasional resemblance to early Britten. Conductor Stratton and his chamber orchestra capture the lightness as well as the lovely textures, and their performance is delightful. So, too, is the brief ode to Botticelli’s “La Naissance de Vénus,” written for a 1961 TV documentary on the artist that was never aired. An unnamed studio orchestra recorded and broadcast the piece to arouse interest in the TV program, but when the show was scuttled that recording disappeared. This is its first official recording, and is an excellent example of the composer’s ability to set a mood with only a few gestures.
Possibly the most arresting piece here is the ballet score
, a retelling of Dumas’s tale of Marguerite Duplessis. It was written in 1950 and premiered in New York the following year with choreography by George Balanchine. This incident was not an anomaly; as Françaix often said, “I live in exile in my own country and am nurtured from abroad.” As in the case of much 20th-century ballet music, the score alludes to the movements of the dancers and does not always develop as concert music, yet I found it extremely well written. The opening piece, titled “Am Grab:
,” is moody and evocative, representing a scene at Marguerite’s grave. According to the liner notes, “Her spirit accepts the camellias from Armand’s ghost and reflects that her legend has become immortal: she invites the audience to see how it came about.” The second piece, representing the ball at which she meets Armand, is an interesting waltz in which the rhythms are, again, occasionally skewed. It includes a minuet and ends in a lively vein. The pair dance a “melancholy siciliano” while Marguerite reflects that “the reality of their affair was much more mundane than the legend.”
The next section, “Das Landhaus:
,” is set at the country house of Armand’s father who forbids her to continue the affair with his son. It opens with violin scales that rise and fall chromatically, suggesting the uncertain nature of their relationship. These are altered in various ways throughout the scene—one of them a melancholy and quirky waltz in which the string figures occasionally resolve the harmony only to set off again restlessly. A Gallic sort of polka rhythm also makes its appearance here in the middle section. “Im Spielsaal:
” places Marguerite in the gaming hall with the Baron. The liner notes aptly describe the music as beginning with vivacious dances but eventually veering off into long, sad phrases that depict her death from tuberculosis. The final scene returns her, and us, to the graveside once again, bringing closure to this rather brief (25 minutes) but sad ballet.
This is the first recording of the ballet as well as of the Botticelli piece, thus this disc is a must for Françaix fans. For those who have heard his music and like it, I recommend it highly as well. The string symphony has only been recorded three times previously, and since this disc collects almost all his music for string orchestra it is a valuable addition to the composer’s discography. I particularly applaud conductor Stratton for his enthusiasm for this music and foresight in getting it recorded.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Symphony for Strings by Jean Françaix
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1948; France
Venue: Studio 22, Hungarian Radio, Budapest, Hu
Length: 20 Minutes 25 Secs.
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