If, as the ANAM program suggested, Poulenc was the perfect musical host then the audience enjoyed a veritable feast of his music for winds, in a program led by Wissam Boustany, himself a flautist of international renown.
The largest work in the program was the stunning Aubade for piano and 18 instruments, with the generous program also featuring a trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, sonatas for oboe and piano, clarinet and bassoon, flute and piano, clarinet and piano, and (the final item) for two clarinets. There was also Elegie for horn and piano, and the Sextet for winds and piano.
Director of ANAM, clarinettist and composer Paul Dean, was on hand to encourage and applaud the considerable achievements of the performers, as were their fellow-students. (This camaraderie is a feature of ANAM performances, and must surely contribute to the high standards achieved and displayed in public performances).
Dean’s introduction tackled the question of whether a whole evening of one composer – particularly this one – might be a little de trop, even if we were to hear “the great wind music of the 20th century”. But, Dean argued, Poulenc’s music was sensual, unpretentious, inventive … “This week we are drunk with Poulenc”, he said. From the very first item, we understood why. The Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano began with a challengingly strident piano (Jacob Abela), with the bassoon (Cameron Burnes) and oboe (Stephanie Dixon) delivering a smooth sound that moved by the end to an exciting, showy piece. The brilliant ending alone justified the choice of this Trio as the opening item.
Oboist David Reichelt and pianist Adam Mc Millan delivered the Sonata for oboe and piano true to Poulenc’s direction, moving from nicely shaped phrases in the Elegie, to well-managed rhythms and great pianism in the Scherzo, the oboe clean and clear for the final, Deploration (meaning, like a lament or regret). Next, without the piano, the Sonata for clarinet and bassoon allowed a full appreciation of those instruments in perfect sync, in a work that was both delicate and full of humour. Amy Whyte (clarinet) and Christopher Haycraft (bassoon) received appreciative laughter as well as applause for their well-judged performance of the work.
The next performers, flautist Kim Faulkner and pianist Julia Hastings looked like twins as they walked onto the platform – an appropriate thought as it turned out, thanks to the synchronicity they showed in Poulenc’s famous sonata for their two instruments. It is marked by a number of flowing runs at speed, with the pace and dynamics of the work well judged, the second movement, Cantilene, having lovely phrasing, and the partnership in the demanding presto that rounded off the work making this a very impressive performance indeed.
After interval, the Sonata for clarinet and piano was performed by Kenny Keppel and pianist Andrew Leathwick. In this late work, Poulenc explored the full range of the clarinet it seemed, its sprightly passages leading the piano to follow. After a slow movement delivered lovingly by both, the final movement, con fuoco, was indeed fiery and there was loud applause. It was good to hear more of Leathwick as he returned to perform Elegy for horn and piano with horn player Ben Messenger. This was perhaps not one of Poulenc’s more accessible works but, being played with great care and control, it persuaded the audience to warm to the melody of the horn and the intense piano.
Some of the performers already heard joined others for the delicious Sextet for piano and wind quintet. It is hard to know what exact balance the composer hoped for in this middle period work, but from where I was sitting, it could hardly be better. Even the piano was absorbed into the overall sound. This performance provided some of the loveliest music heard on a night of fine music, but it was the prestissimo that left us gasping, pianist Alex Raineri giving a virtuoso performance!
Yet more players arrived for the Aubade for piano and 18 instruments, including strings, with Wissam Boustany conducting. The pianist was Laurence Matheson and indeed this felt like a piano concerto, with the sound of a small chamber orchestra. This was so brilliantly executed that it would have been a worthy finish for the evening.
But after another interval, clarinetists Kenny Keppel and Luke Carbon had the “last word” with a work that showed beautifully matched instruments, a range of dynamics, and plenty to interest. After a lively passage, there was a rallentando then a perfectly timed (and again cheeky) ending.
In all, a quite thrilling night, which had illuminated the work of Poulenc and shown not only the strength of ANAM’s wind instruments but also the superior skills of pianists in its ranks.