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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)
with Hélène Mercier (piano)
BBC Philharmonic/Edward Gardner
rec. 27-30 April 2015, MediaCityUK, Salford, UK
CHANDOS CHAN10875 [72:44]

We’re not into brief reviews on this site, but the temptation with this release is to announce that it literally has everything going for it, and leave it at that. This programme has some of Poulenc’s most enjoyable music, performed in the safe and sensitive hands of Louis Lortie and with the excellent Edward Gardner at the helm of one of the UK’s finest orchestras.

The Piano Concerto is, despite its light ‘souvenir of Paris’ character, one of Poulenc’s mature masterpieces. The orchestration is meaty and full of variety, and with a few hints of the drama of the Organ Concerto that preceded it this work has a richness of harmony that would keep anyone going on a desert island. The piano part is brilliant but often secondary to the orchestra – integrating in terms of texture and musical material in a way which has the feel of a concerto grosso, making it more of an orchestral leader than your classic barnstorming soloist. Poulenc’s slow movements are often gorgeous and this is one of his best, introducing tragedy to an otherwise tranquil picture in a manner most moving. The energetic final movement is four minutes of sheer fun.

Lortie writes of the Aubade that it is “a truly neglected masterpiece showcasing among other things the inimitable melancholy of the French circus world, with a soupçon of Stravinsky. Subtitled Concerto choréographique, the work is descriptive of the mythological huntress Diana in a state of unrequited love. Poulenc was himself in a state of depression as he wrote the work, but there are no shortage of characteristically fun features to contrast with the tenderness of its most affecting moments, including the Mozartean beauty of the penultimate Andante.

The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra has long been a favourite of mine and it is given a terrific performance here, with Louis Lortie joined by the equally excellent Hélène Mercier. Striking detail in the orchestral recording lifts this recording into top drawer status, as if it needed it with such excellent musicianship on show. Forensic clarity is no hindrance to the moods that need to be conveyed from this score, from cheesy cinematic corners to the most deadly of quasi-silences. The Balinese effects that close the first movement are truly magical, the orchestral entries every bit as subtle as the playing of the pianists. Roger Nichols’ booklet notes sum up the last movement perfectly as “a riot of tunefulness, prodigal almost to a fault”.

After being treated to these three wonderful orchestral works we have the added gift of the intense Sonata for piano duet played with terrific zing and magnificently poetic depth by Lortie/Mercier. The restrained and beautiful Élégie was written as a memorial to Poulenc’s friend and trusted musical adviser Marie-Blanche de Polignac. L’Embarquement pour Cythère is a nostalgic look back to “the banks of the Marne, dear to my childhood”, and recalling the jolly sound of accordions. These last two works for two pianos are more subject to a bath of resonance than elsewhere in this recording but are still glorious.

This Chandos recording is admirably balanced, and this is one case in which I have no criticism of the presence of the piano/s against the orchestra. Competition for works such as the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra can be found with the likes of Mona and Rica Bard on a recent Capriccio disc (review), and my long-term reference on BIS-CD-593 with Love Derwinger and Roland Pöntinen which also has the wonderful Sonata for Two Pianos. With their different couplings neither of these recordings are about to be ditched, but if I had to take away just one Poulenc programme then CHAN 10875 would be my current first choice.

Dominy Clements


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