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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto pour deux pianos et orchestra, en ré mineur* (1932) [19:13]
Concerto pour piano et orchestre (1949) [19:47]
Aubade, concerto chorégraphique pour piano et dix-huit instruments (1930) [21:18]
Frank Braley*, Eric Le Sage (pianos)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège/Stéphane Denève
rec. Salle Philharmonique, Liège, 17-20 December 2003
BMG RCA RED SEAL 82876 603082 [60:01]

If you think of Poulenc principally as a purveyor of sophistication and boulevardier wit, the violent opening of the Concerto for Two Pianos - crackling chords ushering in a demonic moto perpetuo - will come as a shock. In the quieter second subject, the rich chords which in other Poulenc scores create a jazz flavor here produce an anxious undercurrent, which paradoxically intensifies as the music gets softer. The final, bounding section of the movement recalls Shostakovich, with elegance tempering the spikiness. The central Larghetto movement begins with an almost childlike simplicity - Jean-Jacques Velly, in the booklet, suggests a homage to Poulenc's favorite composer, Mozart - but, before two minutes have passed, shifting harmonies once again evoke a troubled air. Only the Finale - once past its ominous beginning - offers the composer's familiar bubbly good humor.

The lush, softer-edged sounds introducing the (one-)Piano Concerto are more typical of the composer. After presenting a bright, chipper interlude at 2:13 for contrast, Poulenc melts it into and out of the softer sonorities which began the movement - a nice display of compositional prestidigitation. A broad horn call at 3:10 injects a Straussian note into the agitated development of the initially tranquil Andante con moto, while the final Rondeau, with its quotes of "Swanee River" (which apparently disturbed some in the premiere audience), skitters about entertainingly.

The Aubade is less a virtuoso concerto than a concertante chamber work, simultaneously conceived as a ballet. As befits Poulenc's original classical scenario, centering on the chastity of Diana, the moon goddess - the composer disowned the expanded plot concocted by George Balanchine for the 1930 premiere - the music frequently sings with a correspondingly chaste line, occasionally, as in La toilette de Diane, breaking into a sprightly, frolicsome mood.

Eric Le Sage performs creditably and deftly in Aubade and the solo concerto; his tone quality is decently weighted, not flinty, though I would have liked a wider variety of layered colors. Frank Braley joins him for the duo concerto, which they bring off with stunning unanimity. (The purpose of the writing is not, of course, merely to amplify the already formidable volume of a single concert grand, but to expand its possibilities for rapid passagework and leaping figurations, all of which makes rather frightening demands on the players' coordination.)

The Liège Philharmonic winds are excellent - I particularly enjoyed the plangent clarinet, cool, clear flute, and gleaming oboe in Aubade - but the strings are mushy and soft-centered, whether playing as soloists (the uncertainly tuned duetting cellos of the Récitatif in Aubade, track 13) or sectionally (the tentative muted chorale in the piano concerto, track 4, 6:59). RCA, typically, favors a bright sonic image which, unfortunately, turns harsh and edgy in the Piano Concerto (presumably each work required a different mike setup). But even there, as the brass chorale at 6:06 illustrates, the winds emerge with a nice sense of depth.

Despite the orchestral and sonic flaws, as a convenient package of Poulenc's concertante piano works, this disc is recommendable.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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