Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D minor (1932) [19:45]
Suite Française (1935) [11:35]
Concert Champêtre (1928) [26:00]
Jos van Immerseel, Claire Chevallier (piano), Katerina Chroboková (harpsichord)
Anima Eterna Brugge/Jos van Immerseel
rec. 2008.

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 Dutoit.

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 1749 instrument.

Oleg Ledeniov

Poulenc in Versailles.