Anima Eterna Brugge and van Immerseel take an unexpected trip
away from their traditional pastures. In the liner-note, van
Immerseel explains this by his love for the composer’s music,
and by his observation that in recent years public interest
in Poulenc has been steadily waning. I totally share van Immerseel’s
feelings towards the composer and I was thrilled to see how
his music would be presented by a conductor and ensemble that
are firmly associated with period practices of Renaissance to
early Romantic music. My point of reference was the Decca line
of excellent Poulenc recordings, with Pascal Rogé and Charles
The first movement of the Two-Piano Concerto is completely
irreverent. It is humorous and arrogant, with a leap-frog game
of themes and motifs. Poulenc was always a man of contrasts,
and so we meet gamelan-like lakes of translucent serenity, with
silver droplets. The slow movement is very Mozartean, with soft,
shimmering yellow tones. The middle episode is more active and
impatient. The finale is like a tarantella with various inserted
episodes. There’s little in the way of structure, but there
is a lot of joy. The entire concerto is a very special creation,
and if you don’t know it yet you really owe it to yourself.
Its joie de vivre is irresistible.
The Neo-Baroque Suite Française is based on the dances
from Claude Gervaise’s Livres de danceries of 1655. The
instrumentation - oboes, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, harpsichord
and percussion - creates the atmosphere of a Renaissance festival,
a kind of French Pulcinella. It brings to mind feasts,
tournaments and stately court dances, though many harmonies
are very XX century. This is a happy marriage of the two eras
- so different yet so close. The honey-tongued harpsichord,
the misbehaving drums and the frolicking woodwinds have great
fun. The music oozes that unique French charm, warm and sunny.
Concert Champêtre is not as instantly loveable
as the Two-Piano Concerto, but it is interesting nevertheless.
The Baroque and the Modern reach towards one another like stalactites
and stalagmites, meeting and growing into each other. We may
be reminded of the original meaning of the word “baroque” –
a grotesque, irregular pearl. The mood alternates between excited
and mystical. The first movement starts with a stately introduction,
where the orchestra and the harpsichord exchange statements.
Then we enter a Haydnesque Allegro, lighthearted and
whimsical. The middle episode goes from plaintive to march-like.
New themes are generously thrown into the mix. The music reaches
symphonic heights, and is suddenly cut. We then enter what seems
to be a pensive, suspended and occasionally ghostly cadenza
with orchestral comments. After a short bustling bridge, the
recapitulation disperses the seriousness. The slow movement
is in the manner of a Siciliana, steady and melancholic, placid
yet not static. Again, a contrasting episode is inserted in
the middle, with a sudden change of mood: cold, creepy Nachtmusik.
The positive mood returns, though its positivity is now somewhat
ambiguous. The finale is the least interesting of the three
movements – mostly because its busily buzzing character is what
is expected if a harpsichord concerto. The harpsichord combs
up its thick golden fleece and the orchestra bubbles happily.
The performance of the three works is consistent: energetic
and sharp, not rushed. The recording is excellent, very vivid,
multi-dimensional. It is as if a visual aspect had been added
to the music and the tiniest details are revealed. All instruments
are well projected. This is music which is played right in front
of our eyes. But this coin has an obverse: with such attention
to detail the big picture tends to suffer and music can take
on a heavy quality.
So, in the Two-Piano Concerto, the orchestra sounds more interesting
in van Immerseel’s recording than, for example, in the Rogé/Deferne/Dutoit
on Decca. The sound in the new recording is more spectacular.
On the other hand, Dutoit sounds lighter and cooler in the first
movement, and his mysterious lakes are silver, compared to van
Immerseel’s sunlit gold. In the slow movement, the Decca performance
is more alive, more charming, and more poetic. The Decca-recorded
musicians fully inhale and exhale, and can play piano,
while van Immerseel’s forces deploy gradations starting from
mezzo-piano and up. He also seems to take only half-lung
breaths. In the finale, van Immerseel reluctantly participates
in the fun. The episodes feel glued together but the end-to-end
draught which pulls me straight through the entire movement
is barely present. Such a contrast with the Dutoit.
Van Immerseel’s Suite Française sparkles. It sounds traditional
and fresh, young and old at the same time, just as it should.
The harpsichord is placed in a very forward position.
The performance of Concert Champêtre is devoted. The
winds are deep, and the harpsichord reaches piano-like expressivity
and diversity. I do not quite feel all the requisite depth in
the slow movement. This maybe as a result of a close recording.
Van Immerseel’s vast Baroque experience is felt in the finale.
If Dutoit’s third movement seems boring after the first two,
van Immerseel manages to make it multi-layered and interesting.
Even this did not help me to warm to this movement, and I still
consider much of it rather mechanical.
I warmly welcome such an unusual contribution to the Poulenc
discography. I hope that the popular stature of Jos van Immerseel
and his ensemble will contribute to the composer’s reputation.
The more “retro” pieces came out more successfully – after all,
this is van Immerseel’s domain. I have mentally dubbed this
album “Poulenc in Versailles”. I think Poulenc would like it.
The two pianos date from 1896 and 1905, so frankly they are
not “period” in a true sense: the Two-Piano Concerto was written
some thirty years later. The harpsichord is a 1983 copy of a