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Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Concerto for two pianos and orchestra (1965) [28:04]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Les Animaux modèles (1941) [21:16]
Concerto for two pianos and orchestra in D minor (1932) [19:35]
Mona and Rica Bard (pianos)
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinlands-Pfalz/Ariane Matiakh
rec. 2014, Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen.
CAPRICCIO C5237 [68:55]

Jean Françaix’s Concerto for two pianos and orchestra was first performed by the composer together with his daughter Claude. A quote from Françaix on the subject of the quantity of notes in this joyous piece is included in the booklet for this release and is quite illustrative: “There are many notes [but] I counted the drops of rain carefully. I heeded the law of the genre, which gives the opposing pianists the opportunity to present their techniques; all the more so, when the technique of the father is wrestling with that of his daughter, which, however, does not prevent them from getting on excellently, both on the pianos and in life.”

Many of us could wish for more of this kind of harmony, and with the sisterly synergy of Mona and Rica Bard there is some connection to the intent of the original performance. Françaix would have known Poulenc’s Double Concerto, and if you already know and love that piece then you will relish this typically French feast of sparkling wit and lyricism. There aren’t many recordings of Jean Françaix’s Concerto around, the Wergo label having one with the Sinfonieorchester des Südwestfunks Baden-Baden conducted by Pierre Stoll on WER6087-2 or as part of a 3 CD set (review). This is an engagingly lively performance but has a few ‘live’ imperfections such as scrappy strings in the trickier fast passages. This newer recording with the Bard sisters on the Capriccio label is superb, with gorgeous atmosphere in the slow movement or section, as the music runs continuously. Everything is technically under control in the swift outer movements, which doesn’t mean we are lacking in effusive abandon. The German orchestra doesn’t have quite that pungent edge you might expect from a French orchestra from the last century, but everything is rhythmically very sharp and great fun indeed.

Poulenc’s Les Animaux modèles was written as France became subject to occupation early in WWII. There is an eight part ballet version, and the six part concert suite performed here. The music could hardly be more French, Poulenc’s patriotism being expressed to offer hope for a better future, but without bombast. There is much regretful tenderness and there are darker moments, but amongst the poignancy there is a good deal of cinematic glamour for Le Lion amoreux, sprightly caricature of A middle-aged man and his two mistresses and Two Roosters who have been clearly listening to Saint-Saëns. This is another very good performance, and there is a little more competition out there, with a nice complete version on Avie AV2135 with the Filarmonica '900 conducted by Jan Latham-Koenig. This is more closely recorded than the Capriccio version and has a bit more gutsy impact, and if you want the real French ‘sound’ then there is an older recording of the suite conducted by Georges Prêtre on EMI, which is now Warner Classics. This is hard to beat for sheer emotional wallop, but there are now also versions of this work for piano solo such as that played by Jean-Pierre Armengaud on Naxos (review), reviving the way this music would have been heard in the ballet studios.

Poulenc’s Concerto for two pianos and orchestra in D minor is one of his masterpieces, and if you don’t already know it you are in for a treat. There is a melodramatic aura to the first movement which comes out nicely in this performance, and the contrast between the spiky character of this and the magical quiet section which suddenly kicks in at 2:24 is a moment of genuine surprise, as is the Balinese gamelan material toward the end of the movement. The central Larghetto sees Poulenc in a conversation with Mozart, a combination which creates a musical object of jewel-like beauty. The Finale is a real show-stopper, played with élan and perfectly judged gear-changes by these performers.

One of my favourite CDs of past years is that with Poulenc’s complete music for two pianos on BIS-CD-593 with Love Derwinger and Roland Pöntinen, and it is their performance of this work which has long been my default choice for sheer verve and beauty of expression. Their timings are always a touch shorter, the greater sense of forward drive in the first movement preventing holes appearing in the ‘pizzicato’ pointed notes in the first minute, and the dramatic gusto of the playing still blows me away every time. There is a little detail at 2:50 in the first movement of the Capriccio recording in which there is a trumpet flatterzunge note which almost inevitably goes a little out of tune. The players on the BIS recording resolve this with a little ‘cheat’, playing fast repeated notes but keeping pitch. There are other fine recordings around of course, and the BIS version doesn’t have all the answers. Take that lovely moment after 2:00 in the slow movement, played softly by the Bard sisters and their orchestra in a far more Mozartean idiom than with Osmo Vänskä, who adds a suspenseful accented edge to the string notes. Who is right and who do you prefer? This can often depend on which version you first acquire and take to your heart, and I freely admit the subjective nature of my bias, but do get hold of BIS-CD-593 if you can as the Sonatas and other works are also tremendous.

With its attractive programme and the excellent musicianship of these performers this Capriccio disc is a real treat and very easy to recommend. With a delightful touch and plenty of drama and excitement this is by no means an offering of just fluffy and feminine Frenchness. The recording is not too close, but still captures plenty of detail. Well-chosen and fabulously executed, what’s not to love?

Dominy Clements