Top Ear

Jean Françaix’s Fascinating Chamber Music

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Jeremy Lee writes

Jean Françaix (23/5/1912 – 25/9/1997) was a generally little-known French composer characterized by his huge output (as was common for his contemporaries, cue Les Six) and a vibrant, colorful style with strong emphasis on rhythm and highly complex polyrhythms.  Being a saxophonist, I have played all five of his Danses Exotiques (standard saxophone repertoire, featuring extremely catchy rhythms and boundless energy), and having loved them immensely, I heard his piano works (Martin Jones on Nimbus) and was equally impressed.  This disc I borrowed from the library features his chamber music, which allowed me to sample his orchestral writing, with the sole hope that it would be as dazzlingly French as the other works I knew and loved.

I was not disappointed.  The works featured here are an Octet for clarinet, horn, bassoon, string quartet and double bass, a Clarinet Quintet, and a Divertissement for bassoon and string quartet, and all three follow the traditional style of a moderately fast first movement, a scherzo and an andante (though in the Divertissement the middle two movements follow the slow-fast structure instead), and at last a dazzling Allegro finale.  But the traditions end there.  All works feature joke-like tunes, unpredictable syncopations, shifting counterpoint, and last but not least a massive dollop of French charm.  The Scherzo and Valse of the Octet, the Scherzando of the Quintet and the Vivace of the Divertissement would make great day-brighteners:  they certainly put a huge grin on my face.  The Clarinet Quintet in particular features a bubbly, jocular solo part that reminds me of none less than Till Eulespiegel’s squeals of delight.  Then there’s the andante of the Octet, some of the sweetest, most romantic music you’re likely to hear, and the vivo assai of the Divertissement, which is just a hoot.

The Charis Ensemble plays with considerable virtuosity throughout these works, giving us clarity, transparency and humor, and although I might have wished for a rawer sound, there is simply nothing to carp about the playing itself (the bassoonist Stephan Rüdiger in particular deserves special mention for his superb technique and musicality).  Throw in beautiful recorded sound, and you’re left wondering why on Earth nobody bothers to perform or record these works nowadays.  (The playing time is a bit stingy though:  the String Trio would have made a lovely coupling.)  A delightful discovery, and a fascinating disc.


  • Album name:  Françaix:  Chamber Music
  • Performers:  Charis Ensemble
  • Label:  MDG 308 0300-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  56:01

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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