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French Concertos for Two Pianos
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)

Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D minor (1932) [17.14]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)

Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1942) [17.03]
Robert CASADESUS (1899-1972)

Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Op. 17 (1932-3) [19.25]
Piano Duo: Genova and Dimitrov (pianos)
SWR Rundfunkorchester Kaiserslautern/Alun Francis
rec. SWR Studio Kaiserslautern, June and December 2003
CPO 999 992-2 [54.14]

Once past the unceremonious opening thump, this is quite the performance of the Poulenc concerto. Frank Braley and Eric LeSage (BMG-RCA Red Seal 82876 603082 review), highlighted the first movement's ferocity - most uncharacteristic of this composer. The Genova and Dimitrov duo afford themselves a wide range of colors and dynamics, making split-second pivots from playfulness through bustling good cheer to sheer menace. The only noticeable flaw in their accomplished, precise, purposeful playing is the brittle sound of some loud passage-work; otherwise, soloists and conductor alike find more variety in the score than do RCA's adept practitioners. The slow movement makes a good contrast, the main theme relaxed if square, the passage at 1:10 adding a suppressed anxiety. And, from the opening repeated-note figurations - nasty stuff to play, no matter how many pianos share them - extroverted sparkle and bounding energy dominate the finale. The pianissimo, four minutes in, is also breathtaking.

To follow Poulenc's concerto immediately with Milhaud's isn't doing the latter composer any favors. His lively themes and puckish dissonances are appealing, as always, but he falls into the trap of using the two pianos to pile on the sonorities: where Poulenc's piano parts are linear and economical, Milhaud's writing is predominantly chordal, and given a heavy, undifferentiated orchestral backing to boot. The second movement particularly suffers: its eerie, yearning bitonality would have been more effective were it cast in sparer textures. Only occasionally do quieter contrapuntal moments, such as the finale's first orchestral passage, provide aural relief. The pianists don't avoid a touch of glare, but, all things considered, they acquit themselves rather well: the whole thing could have been intolerably clangorous.

Somehow, the Casadesus concerto almost seems out of place here. Certainly the pungent harmonies, shiny sonorities, and sharply etched rhythms mark it indelibly as twentieth-century French. But Casadesus eschews wit and outward sophistication in favor of an ambiguous, Ravelian harmonic idiom. The first movement's bubbling-cauldron figurations and low trumpet parts bring that composer's left-hand concerto to mind. A respite comes with the middle movement's liquid woodwind soli and shape-shifting tonalities, capped by the bright and busy finale. If this serious, uncompromising score occasionally seems to strain at "importance", there's enough good humor and crisp drive to avoid heaviness. As the duo-pianists seem to get every note of the perfectly transparent solo parts in place, the album would be recommendable for this piece alone.

At the podium, Alun Francis does a remarkable job at elucidating and shaping the diverse orchestral sounds of these three composers. The sound is excellent - which still doesn't particularly help Milhaud.

Stephen Francis Vasta



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