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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Piano Music: Les Soirées de Nazelles (1930-1936) [22:06]
Napoli: Suite (1922-1925) [10:45]
Mélancolie (1940) [6:09]
Trois Novelettes (1927; 1959) [7:08]
15 Improvisations (1932-1959) [26:53]
Charles Owen (piano)
Rec. Walthen Hall, St Paul’s School, London SW13, 6-7 September 2003
SOMM CD 035 [73:24]


I had been greatly impressed by Charles Owen’s sensitive playing of the piano music of Janáček (SOMM CD 028 - not reviewed) and so I looked forward with great anticipation to hearing this Poulenc compilation. I was not disappointed.

Under the sensitive fingers of Charles Owen this music becomes magic. Owen empathises completely with Poulenc’s idiom, particularly that mood of delicate dreamy nostalgia that touches the heart, brings a lump to the throat as though we are taken back to the long-forgotten, ‘The Land of Lost Content’, the golden, safe secure days of childhood innocence. I am thinking particularly of Charles Owen’s beautiful, limpid readings of the lovely neo-classical miniatures that are Trois Novelettes Nos. 1 and 3 (with the amusing No. 2 sandwiched between). In similar mood there is the seventh C major improvisation of the set of Fifteen improvisations; plus the haunting ‘Hommage à Edith Piaf’ that concludes those improvisations. Another highlight is the sad beauty of Mélancholie dedicated to Raymond Destouches (a descendant of the baroque French operatic composer) another moving composition, delicate yet passionate too and deeply felt by Owen.

Balancing the dreamy, and sometimes abruptly interrupting, are episodes of perky insouciance ... think of the fairground/theatre organ music juxtaposed with solemn cathedral-atmosphere material in Poulenc’s Organ Concerto. Such abrupt changes of mood are frequently used to round out the witty, telling little character studies that comprise the variations of Les Soirées de Nazelles, musical portraits inspired, according to Poulenc, by his neighbours at Noisay. The music varies from the coy and delicate to the stern and pompous, from the fussy to the flippant from the dreamy romance to heart-rending sadness.

The Suite Napoli is sunny enough but the music of the first movement ‘Barcarolle’, seems to have strayed very little from the Boulevards of Paris. The ‘Nocturne’, middle movement is restless: rippling arpeggio ostinati and dreamy figures interrupted by harsher material. The final ‘Caprice Italien’ is Poulenc at his most capricious, busy, merry, cheeky then melancholy and, of course, nostalgic.

Fifteen Improvisations were originally published in four separate groups. Not intended to be heard as a single entity they do, nevertheless, together form a very satisfactory listening experience. All the familiar Poulenc fingerprints are here. Of the fifteen, three have subtitles: ‘Ėloge des gammes’ (in praise of scales) is affectionately Chopinesque in its refinement, then there is the clever, lyrical but slightly sardonic ‘Hommage ą Schubert’ and, finally, the longest of the set, the Edith Piaf homage referred to earlier.

A magical album. Charles Owen empathises closely with Poulenc’s elusive idiom catching its delicacy and insouciance brilliantly. An album to cherish and one that will undoubtedly figure highly in my recital discs of 2005.

Ian Lace

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