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CD Review

MUSIC FROM PARIS • Robert J. Ambrose, conductor; Atlanta Chamber Winds • ALBANY TROY 1127 (64:09)


Review by Paul A. Snook


For this listener, it is always very gratifying to come upon a program of genuine first recordings as imaginatively chosen as this Albany release. Although none of this music is earth-shaking in significance, the selections not only fill small gaps in the recorded repertoire but also cast a revealing light on neglected aspects of French music over the past l00 years or so.


Claude Pascal (b. 1921 and the only member of this group still with us) is one of a number of Frenchmen born in that decade (Marcel Bitsch, Pierre Petit, Roger Calmel, the two Jacques—Bondon and Casterede—as well as the Romanian-born Marius Constant) who are not as well known on this side of the Atlantic as their colorful works would warrant. While Bondon, Calmel, Casterede, and Constant have produced a catalog of substantial works in many forms, Pascal belongs with Bitsch and Petit in having focused on more lightweight materials with a characteristically Gallic emphasis on music for wind combinations, which is the scope of this program. Pascal’s quarter-hour, four-movement Octet, written in 1944, when he was barely into his twenties, is typical of the easygoing and ingratiating charm of his music. But it also evinces, like all of its disc companions, a sure-footed economy of means and mastery of craft.


Claude Arrieu (1903–1993), obviously from the previous generation, was a prominent member of a group of French female composers born around the turn of the century that includes, of course, Germaine Tailleferre (of the Les six fame) as well as several others worthy of further exposure—Elsa Barraine, Henriette Puig-Roget, and Yvonne Desportes. Arrieu wrote in many forms, specializing in ballet and concertante combinations. Her 1967 Dectet in five movements is the longest and most intricate work here, and shows the influence of Stravinsky in its more acerbic and astringent accents, enhanced by the presence of two brass instruments, the trumpet and trombone. It is a very skillful and energetic exploration of the many interesting sonorities possible with a near chamber-orchestra-sized but stringless ensemble.


The next three composers—Jules Mouquet (1867–1946), Gabriel Pierné (1863–1937), and François Casadesus (1870–1954)—are all products of the late 19th century who, to a greater or lesser extent, took cognizance of 20th-century developments. The conductor Pierné is by far the best known and most prolific of the three, and his miniature, Pastorale varieé dans le style ancien, an early work of 1893, lives up to all the agreeable expectations aroused by its rococo-like title, though its duration is barely seven minutes, so that its impact is relatively slight.

Mouquet is to this reviewer more of a name than an acquaintance. Except for a recital piece, La fl_x9E_te de Pan, he has been very little represented on disc. His three-movement Suite of 1910, commissioned and premiered by members of the Boston Symphony, is probably the most conservative and least initially energizing work of this motley crew, perhaps because its first two movements are unwisely both on the andante side, though it is tuneful enough throughout.

Casadesus, a member of a distinguished musical family that included his nephew, the outstanding pianist-composer Robert Casadesus, gives us in his London Sketches—described as a Petite suite humoristique for double wind quintet (thus, like the Arrieu, also a Dectet)—three brief but utterly engaging glimpses of everyday public life in sharply-etched vignettes of an almost cartoon-like pointedness.


The final work here is a set of seven short pieces of a generic nature for octet by an adoptive Frenchman, Francis Chagrin (1905–1972). Born in Romania, he emigrated in the 1920s to Paris, where he felt so much at home that he changed his name officially before he ended up during the war in London, where he was known primarily for his work in film and television. But Chagrin continued to write symphonic music (two symphonies and a piano concerto), and this little suite is a truly beguiling example of his spontaneous and civilized temperament.


These performances under Robert J. Ambrose, founder of the Atlanta Winds, are nothing less than impeccable and thoroughly idiomatic: a group of actual French musicians could not improve upon them. Sonics are appropriately clear and bright, though there are few surprising instances of distortion, primarily in the Pascal, which should have been caught and eliminated.


Otherwise, and all in all, this is one of the most succulent musical feasts of recent vintage. All lovers of French music and wind combinations should hurry out and take a bite.


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