ALEC WILDER: Woodwind Quintets Nos. 5, 7, 8, 10 & 12 – Solaris Wind Quintet – Crystal Records CD758, 57:58 *****:
JEAN FRANCAIX: “Le Gai Paris” for Trumpet & Wind Nonette; Concerto for Clarinet & Orch.; 2 Divertimentos; Sonatine for trumpet & piano; Theme and Variations for clarinet & piano; Five Exotic Dances for sax & piano – Eric Aubier, trumpet/ Philippe Cuper, clarinet/ Lola Descours, bassoon/ Nicolas Prost, sax/ others/ Jean Francaix, piano & direction/ Octet of France/ Wind Octet of Paris/ Orch. de Bretagne – Indesens INDE045 (2012) [Distr. by Allegro] *****:
There are not many composers of today who leave the listener with a feeling of great happiness, but these two seem to qualify. Wilder, who lived until 1980, was a somewhat neglected American composer who was an important part of the American popular music canon, having written such great songs as “I’ll Be Around,” “While We’re Young,” and “It’s So Peaceful in the Country.” Being amazingly eclectic, in addition his pop songs Wilder composed classical works for exotic combinations of instruments. His Alec Wilder Octet had Mitch Miller on oboe and the keyboard was a harpsichord. His friend Frank Sinatra conducted his Columbia 78s album which had both some of his jazzy orchestral works and some of his octets, Sinatra’s only conducting stint.
The cantankerous Wilder loved to ride trains and composed much of his music while on them, like Duke Ellington. His mother had moved the family after his father had died to the Algonquin Hotel in NYC, and that became Alex’s home for most of the rest of his life. He recommended pianist Marian McPartland for the award-winning Piano Jazz show which is still running on NPR stations. He also wrote eleven operas and a series of woodwind quintets. Crystal Records and the Solaris Wind Quintet have cleverly selected those quintets which were skipped on an earlier recording of the Quintets by the New York Woodwind Quintet (which has been reissued on CD by Boston Skyline). And they are just as skilled as the New York ensemble was.
Wilder shunned the usual world of composers and did his own individual thing. He loved puzzles and this comes out in the skilled use of contrasting elements in his wind quintets. They sometimes get into Germanic-sounding contrapuntal textures, but they also all have a humorous side, which is sometimes shown in suddenly getting jazzy, but at other times in just having a quirky nature. His expertise as a song composer is heard in the fine lyricism of many of the quintet movements. Sometimes there is a café-music mood that might make you think of An American in Paris.
Jean Françaix, who lived until 1997, aspired to be a continuation of the style of Debussy and Ravel, not encumbered by biases or the avant-garde. I can’t think of any composer whose music more strongly engenders happiness in the listener. His music always provides enjoyable listening and is full of vitality, lightness and a French elegance—not reflecting the horrors of the past century. This CD should probably be in our Reissues section, because Françaix himself is involved in the original recordings, made in 1992 and 1996. He was recognized by some of the top conductors of his time: Ansermet, Ozawa, Paray, Karajan, Munch and Ormandy.
This CD is devoted to some rather rare Françaix material, designed to follow a 3-CD boxed set this label released in 2012 to celebrate the composer. The opening piece for trumpet and winds, which is also the name of the entire album, is a vision of Paris during the “belle époque.” He was thinking of the Folies-Bergere, not St.-Chapelle. He said “You can not always be serious—laughter is the the nature of man.” The Clarinet Concerto was originally written in 1967 and ’68. Françaix said “This concerto is, at least I hope so, fun to listen to.” But performing it is another matter—it calls on the soloist to spare nothing to keep up with its virtuoso demands.
The Five Exotic Dances are some of the most performed music by Françaix. He transcribed the original 1957 work for two pianos for sax and piano. The closing Divertimento for Bassoon goes back to 1942, the oldest Françaix work on the disc. The bassoon and string quintet carry on a real concertant dialog, and the rhythmic work has many chromatic flights in it.