Sunday 2 August 2015

The Iowa Ensemble is a group of very fine musicians who give tremendously satisfying performances of the Complete Music for Winds and Piano by Poulenc on a new release from MSR Classics

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) expressed a particular fondness for wind instruments; something which is clearly shown by the number of works written for wind in various forms across his lifetime.

Indeed, his seven works for wind instruments and piano that are included on a new release from MSR Classics date from between 1926 and 1962, just a year before he died.

MS 1540
The Complete Music for Winds and Piano features the Iowa Ensemble that brings together a distinguished collection of musicians all members of the School of Music faculty of the University of Iowa. Its members are bassoonist Benjamin Coelho , flautist Nicole Esposito , pianist Alan Huckleberry , clarinetist Maurita Murphy Marx , horn player Kristin Thelander and oboist, the late Mark Weiger

This new release opens with one of Poulenc’s later works, the Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1962) dedicated to Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). In the Elégie (Paisiblement) the oboe opens with a four note motif before the piano joins to develop the theme. It is a most appealing theme to which Mark Weiger provides just the right tone and timbre. Pianist, Alan Huckleberry provides excellent support. As the music develops, it becomes increasingly forceful whilst alternating with quieter moments before the opening returns with the coda bringing a quizzical conclusion.

The Scherzo (Très animé) finds the piano introducing a fast and furious theme soon picked up by the oboe. There is some brilliant interplay between these two artists with, midway, a slow, reflective melody appearing. As the music rushes buoyantly to the coda there is some particularly fine playing from Huckleberry.

There is a calm, gentle piano opening Déploration (Très calme) which the oboe then develops, slowly increasing in strength, with Weiger providing a lovely firm tone as well as moments of exquisite cool beauty.

The Sonata for Flute and Piano (1957) is dedicated to the well-known patron of music, Elizabeth Sprague-Coolidge (1864-1953). The Allegretto malincolico has a light and jaunty ear-catching theme with Nicole Esposito’s tone blending beautifully with the piano of Alan Huckleberry. There is a fine, rather Debussyian, middle section.

The following Cantilena brings a lovely little melody, superbly played here by Esposito who, with Huckleberry, finds just the right tempo, allowing a forward flow with just a gently pull to help it along. There are some exquisite little flute flourishes.

There is pinpoint accuracy from both these players in the Presto giocoso, tremendous articulation and fluency from Esposito especially in the terrific finale.

The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1962) dates from the same summer as the Sonata for Oboe and Piano and is dedicated to the memory of the Swiss composer, Arthur Honegger (1892-1955). The work was premiered after the composer’s death by no less than Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein.

As the Allegro tristamente opens, the clarinet of Maurita Murphy Marx enters over a spare piano accompaniment with a jazz like display of flourishes before settling to a fast flowing melody. Marx brings a fine tone and fluency, showing a real affinity for Poulenc’s writing with some terrific decorations and flourishes. There are moments of more relaxed, longer lines, beautifully played with a fine tone and some wonderfully controlled dynamics before the coda that is full of good humour.

The Romanza brings forth a passionate theme to which these two artists bring so much. They have a fine understanding for the sudden passionate turns delivering some lovely moments.

The playful theme of the Allegro con fuoco hurtles off with many little details finely brought out by these two players. There are some lovely moments from the clarinet before the terrific coda.

The Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano (1926) was dedicated to Manuel de Falla (1876-1946). Alan Huckleberry brings a fine broad piano opening to the Presto to which the bassoon of Benjamin Coelho joins with a great little tune. The oboe of Mark Weiger joins bringing a very fine blend of timbres before the music speeds with rather a baroque feel, though Poulenc can’t resist his humorous touches. These players have spot on ensemble.  

The Andante brings a really fine flowing with these players weaving some lovely sounds. They show a fine sensibility for this music and build to a wonderful central peak in this very fine performance.

There is a lovely, rhythmically buoyant Rondo; quite playful, something picked up on by these players who bring real enthusiasm to their beautifully sprung playing.

Poulenc’s Sextet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, French Horn and Piano (1939) is dedicated to the one time curator of the Louvre, Georges Salles (1889-1966). There is a terrific opening flourish to the Allegro vivace with more jazz like phrases. As the music moves ahead there is a terrific blending and weaving of sounds from these players who obviously glean great enjoyment from playing together. The combination of instruments brings some lovely sonorities. There is a short solo for bassoon and later a slower, gentler section to which these players bring lovely textures.  There is a wonderful moment as the music builds when the horn can be heard over the other instruments, indeed there are a myriad of little moments for each instrument to shine – and shine they do – they dazzle.

The second movement, Divertissement has a lovely, relaxed flow as each instrument slowly adds to the theme before picking up the pace in another of Poulenc’s playful ideas with some very fine little harmonies between instruments.

There are staccato rhythms as the Finale opens, leading to a more relaxed, flowing sequence with each instrument providing moments of fine musicianship as they appear from the texture, before building to a very fine coda.

Nicole Esposito returns to join Alan Huckleberry for the brief Villanelle for Piccolo and Piano (1934) taken from a collection of works by a number of composers called Pipeaux and dedicated to another patron of music, Louise B. M. Dyer (1884-1962). She brings a lovely sway to which the piano joins in this lovely, simple little tune to which these players respond wonderfully.
The Elegy for French Horn and Piano (1957) is dedicated to the memory of the great British horn player, Dennis Brain and was first performed by the composer with Neill Sanders in a BBC radio broadcast in 1958. The horn opens before the piano joins, at which point bringing raucous phrases. The piano then leads with a motif before there are more strident phrases from both players. The music then moves forward with a melancholy theme to which it adds occasional intense, dynamic moments. Kristin Thelander and Alan Huckleberry prove very fine advocates for this haunting and unusual Elegy with Thelander providing some terrific timbres and textures. There is a lovely broad and eloquent passage from pianist and strange harmonies before a horn cry as the coda arrives.

The Iowa Ensemble is a group of very fine musicians who give tremendously satisfying performances of these wonderful works.

They are very well recorded at Clapp Recital Hall, University of Iowa, Iowa City, USA. There are excellent booklet notes from Carla Colletti.

The ensemble have dedicated the recordings on this new release to the memory of their oboist colleague, Mark Weiger (1959-2008).

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