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Given the fine musical craftmanship of each item such self-criticism appears misplaced and unduly harsh and as British pianist Charles Owen notes, 'the majority of these vignettes are by turns effervescent, charming, tender, whilst skilfully avoiding the need to appear profound.'

Poulenc's early teacher, Ricardo Viñes, introduced his pupil to the other members of 'Les Six' -- Honegger, Milhaud, Auric, Tailleferre and Durey -- but it was while holidaying away from Paris in the undulating countryside of Touraine and Nazelle that he penned these entertaining 'soirées'.

Eight central pieces are misleadingly labeled 'variations' while in fact they're more in the nature of fleeting 'tone poems' -- insubstantial constructs distinguished largely by their elegance, wit and carefree nature. The longest is a tad over four minutes and the early 'Cadence' lasts a mere 1'05".

At no point does Poulenc probe much below the surface but the work remains pleasingly diverting. Its eight sketches are heralded by a 'Préamble' and book-ended with a 'Final', described by the composer as 'in the nature of a self-portrait.'

The 'Préamble' begins with a abrupt theme in octaves, followed by a robust lyrical waltz. The brief 'Cadence' that follows has embroidered runs, trills, and dramatic pauses. A second, less ornate 'Cadence' precedes the 'Final' which in turn begins with a lively march [listen -- track 11, 0:00-1:13], punctuated by octaves in the lower register. Les Soirées ends in rhapsodic, nostalgic mood enlivened with virtuosic fingerwork.

While Calistus-Ashley reveals a commendable affinity with Poulenc's miniatures I'd hesitate to recommend this account above several of the still more outstanding rival versions -- notably Crossley, Owen and Rogé. Crossley has the complete piano works on three discs while both Owen and Rogé devote a single CD to Poulenc alone.

Of course, there's no comparing apples with apples. In other words, if you're drawn to Les Soirées and the Dett suite, here's the answer.

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Copyright © 1 October 2006 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand


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