Francis Poulenc's Sextet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn and piano takes the listener back to the time of Mozart, in spirit and in the texture of its sound if not in formal structure. It is a relaxed, easygoing work, by turns witty and lightly sentimental, brisk and vigorous, playful and totally enchanting. When the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center plays it at the Kennedy Center Wednesday night, the performers will be acting like many pop and rock groups -- featuring a cut from their latest album.
That album, titled in three languages "Francis Poulenc: Chamber Music Works for Wind Instruments," is a two-record set from Erato (STU 71539) containing nine works that range from the 18-minute Sextet to a little villanelle for flute and piano lasting less than two minutes. The entire album is permeated with a special charm, partly derived from Poulenc's irresistible gift for melody and his knack for cute surprises, but mostly related to his special affinity for the sound of wind instruments. In quantity and quality, his wind chamber music is the most notable since Mozart. The evidence is eloquently presented in this recording.
The performances are splendid. Erato, a French company, chose an American group to record this quintessentially French music, and it chose well. If Wednesday night's performance matches the recording, it should be a dazzler -- and the recording should whet appetites for live performances of other pieces such as the delightful Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon.
Those who attended the recent George Gershwin evening at the Library of Congress can find a handy souvenir of the event on Angel DS 38130 (compact disc CDC 7 47044 2), where the duo-piano team of Katia and Marielle Labeque have recorded the two works they played that evening: Percy Grainger's Fantasy on "Porgy and Bess" and Gershwin's original two-piano version of "An American in Paris." A video recording would be needed to convey the full impact of the occasion -- the striking good looks of the two sisters, their intense eyeball-to-eyeball communication as they played, and the remarkable excursions of Katia's long hair when she slammed a fortissimo chord into the keyboard. But the music is all there -- brilliant, tender, vivid and nostalgic. They play it with great energy and precision. The sound is fine on the vinyl disc but dramatically better on the compact disc.
The Labeque sisters are a bit less prominently featured on Angel DS-38189, where they play the crucial and colorful two-piano parts in Saint-Sae ns' "Carnival of the Animals." They add a distinctive flavor to the performance, however, with Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic. But the musician who will attract the most attention on this record is probably Itzhak Perlman, who has put his violin aside momentarily to read the Ogden Nash verses written to go with this music. On the flip side, he narrates "Peter and the Wolf." He fiddles better than he talks, but that does not mean he is less than an excellent talker.
The strongest recent competitor among "Peter and the Wolf" narrators is William F. Buckley Jr. on Pro Arte PAD 184, with Leopold Hager conducting the Radio Luxembourg Orchestra. Personal taste is the only way to choose between these two, not to mention such rivals as Leonard Bernstein, David Bowie, Sean Connery, Mia Farrow, Hermione Gingold, Boris Karloff and Peter Ustinov. My own taste still favors the outrageous old performance of Beatrice Lillie with (of all people) Skitch Henderson conducting on London 411650.