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  Founder: Len Mullenger

Poulenc (1899-1963) - Piano Concerto

Poulenc was two-faced. I should add “in the same manner as was Schumann”, for he even described himself as “Janus-Poulenc”, aware of his dual musical personality - on the one hand a devout and reverential catholic, and on the other a clowning, fun-loving tunespinner. The fabulous Gloria (1959) encompassed both faces with consummate artistry. The cordial confection of the Piano Concerto (1949), by contrast, has both feet firmly on the face of the fun-loving clown. 

He wrote it in Boston, Massachusetts, of which the Parisian in him prompted the wry comment, “I lead an austere existence in this very puritan town”. Unfortunately, he failed to follow through his own observation when, for the amusement of the audience at the première, he tossed into the finale a quotation of the tune of Way Down upon the Swanee River. Poor old Poulenc could not see why “çe shake-hand” had been received with less than obvious enthusiasm, though no doubt he would have been gratified to know that we “chez Huddersfield” [*] are far more tolerant! 

Although cast in three movements, it is a world away from the classical concerto. This is largely on account of its first movement (allegro assai: “very jolly”, literally!), which is divertissement, pure and unadulterated. Apart from the opening theme, a typically liquid melody, lightly garnished with ginger, which reappears at the end of the movement, it is the musical equivalent of a Paris fashion show­: a succession of ear-catching tunes, each of which is paraded for our amusement then lost to view forever - which perhaps accounts in part for the general air of wistfulness? The nostalgic mood is carried forward into the second movement (andante), whose main theme weaves its simple charms over a pulsing accompaniment somewhat reminiscent of  (though in a rather different context) a passage in the first movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. The finale (Rondeau à la française) breaks the spell, only to weave one of its own through its use of the rhythm of the maxixe (a tango popular during the 1920s). The quote from Swanee River is blended in with such immense skill that it seems to dissolve into the fabric of the movement like a sugar lump in a saucer of hot tea. And, having - naughtily - slurped Poulenc's saucer of hot, sweet tea, you may well be tempted to ask, “Why don't we hear this more often?” 

[*] It goes without saying that here you should substitute the name of your own town! 

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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