Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Piano Concerto, S.146 (1949) [20:00] Aubade, S.51 (1929) [19:31]
Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra, S.61 (1932) [19:06]
Sonata for Piano Four Hands (à mademoiselle Simone Tilliard), S.8 (1918, rev. 1939) [5:57]
Elégie for two pianos, S.175 (1959) [5:20] L'Embarquement pour Cythère, for two pianos, S.150 (1951) [2:02]
Louis Lortie (piano)
Hélène Mercier (piano)
BBC Philharmonic/Edward Gardner
rec. 27-30 April 2015, MediaCityUK, Salford, UK Reviewed as lossless
The Classical Shop CHANDOS CHAN10875 [72:44]
For no obvious reason, the orchestral music of Francis Poulenc has somehow bypassed me. I know some of his choral music, most obviously the delightful Gloria, but I had no idea just how much enjoyment lay in store with the works presented here. Dominy Clements began his review by suggesting that it could almost be enough to state “that it literally has everything going for it, and leave it at that”. Writing a second review, having precisely the same thoughts as Dominy, is difficult, so you will understand if my comments are relatively brief. There is also the thought that you should be spending more time ordering this than reading my words.
The Piano Concerto has a distinct Rachmaninov feel throughout each movement, though there are also sections that are very different in their lightness and humour. It is quite a discovery for me, and I can see me playing it over and over. Aubade has a more neo-Classical feel, and a Stravinskian brittleness in places, but still with plenty of the characteristic Poulenc humour and beauty – try the sixth movement Variations by way of example. The Concerto for Two Pianos packs so much variety into its twenty minutes that you are left breathless by the invention, to say nothing of the beauty and high spirits. It is easy to understand why Dominy described it as a long-time favourite.
The three short non-orchestral works may not be quite at the same exalted standard, but their qualities are still very obvious. The Sonata must be a hoot to perform, the Elegie is tenderly reflective and the closing work L'Embarquement is very nostalgic, but possibly a little anti-climactic to close such a wonderful recording.
Performances of the soloists and orchestra are beyond reproach, and the sound quality is beautifully balanced between piano(s) and orchestra. Booklet notes are the usual standard for the label.
There is no question that this is one of my discoveries for 2015, and begs the question of why I waited so long to make the acquaintance of Poulenc’s concertos.
I took a great deal of pleasure reviewing this CD and, as Dominy Clements noted in his review, it was tempting to just say that it has everything going for it and stop there. It is so logical to have all three of Poulenc’s piano concertos on one disc along with his music for piano duo that it is surprising it isn’t done this way more often. For me, the three concertos represent the best in Poulenc’s orchestral music and rank high in the genre of the twentieth century. The recordings I’ve listened to most often in these works are those by Pascal Rogé with Charles Dutoit on Decca. It was fascinating to do side-by-side comparisons of Louis Lortie and company’s with those, as both pianists have the measure of this music and are backed by sympathetic conductors.
The programme starts off with Poulenc’s last work in the genre, the Piano Concerto of 1949. It is one of the composer’s most tuneful pieces, whose melodies haunt the mind. Lortie calls the concerto “almost a guilty pleasure”. In his notes in the CD booklet, French music specialist Roger Nichols points out Poulenc’s quotation of the American song, “Way down upon the Swanee River”, in the last movement that apparently escaped American audiences when it was first performed. I must admit I never thought about it either, but now will always hear the song when I listen to that particular passage. While the timings of the two recordings I compared are very close, they do not tell the whole story. To generalize, Rogé with the Philharmonia under Dutoit are a bit warmer, smoother, more Ravelian, whereas Lortie and Gardner are brighter, crisper, Stravinskian, if you will. Both approaches are legitimate and I find it difficult to choose one over the other.
The Two-Piano Concerto was my first exposure to Poulenc’s music and I never knew what to make of it. I have always thought of it as a delightfully crazy piece, one minute serious and the next jovial. I can now fully appreciate its dualities as being fully representative of the composer. There is an eerie string passage around 5:30-5:40 that reminds me of a similar string part in Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová of all things. Lortie and Mercier capture this duality with perfection and bring out the humor and utter strangeness of the first movement especially well. Rogé and fellow pianist Sylviane Deferne are just that bit more forceful and heavy, but still rhythmically astute. On the other hand, they are particularly well suited to the Mozartian-cum-Romantic slow movement with their more rounded and bell-like piano tone. Both performances are equal in capturing the riotous nature of the finale where Poulenc throws in everything but the kitchen sink, even evoking the music hall at 2:33-2:48. As a recording, I prefer Chandos’ bright, clean sound that suits this music so well.
The third concerto and the earliest of the three, the Aubade, which is subtitled Concerto choréographique, is by some measure the most serious. As well as being a “dance” piece, it is also more of a chamber work and is scored for piano and eighteen instruments. Again I hear Janáček in the beginning motif where it recalls the first movement of the Moravian composer’s Concertino for piano and chamber ensemble. That very dramatic beginning returns at the end of the Aubade and leaves no doubt of the seriousness of Poulenc’s intentions. Nichols notes that the composer wrote the work “during one of his frequent periods of depression”. Yet, the piece is far from depressing and contains some of Poulenc’s most lyrical and haunting music. Lortie and Gardner are perhaps more balletic and spikier in this work, while Rogé and Dutoit are rather more blended, Impressionistic with more resonance in their recording. Dutoit’s recording is on a separate CD from that of the other concertos and is coupled with various orchestral pieces by Poulenc, all performed there by the Orchestre National de France. I feel that the orchestra just has the edge over Gardner’s BBC Philharmonic, excellent though that is. The French orchestra displays a bit more idiomatic character with really delectable wind solos, in particular those of the horn in the penultimate section of the work.
The CD is filled out with three works that were unfamiliar to me, scored for piano four hands, as in the Sonata, or two pianos. The first of these may be short in length, but not in stature. The Sonata is an early work, though it was revised much later. It’s first movement is rather aggressive in the manner of Prokofiev or Bartók, whereas the second movement, played only on the white keys, sounds more like the Poulenc he would become and betrays the influence of Fauré and Ravel. The third movement combines some of the aggressive nature of the first movement and French sensibility of the second, and ends with a hazy chord on the sustaining pedal. The Élégie is a late work and a memorial to Marie-Blanche de Polignac, who was a singer, pianist, and close friend of the composer. It finds Poulenc in an appropriately subdued mood with its simple and deep chords. Lortie describes it as “Schumannesque”. Finally, there is the slight, but charming valse-musette, L’Embarquement pour Cythère. It is a delightful encore piece that again evokes the music hall. Lortie and Mercier clearly seem to relish this music and all three works are given first-class treatment.
Chandos have contributed a winner with these sparkling performances in state-of-the art sound and a glossy booklet containing Jean-Georges Béraud’s painting Au Café on the cover and scholarly notes inside.