Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Works for Piano Solo & Duo
15 Improvisations (1932-1958) [27:54]
3 Novelettes (1927-1958) [7:24]
Lucille Chung (piano)
Sonata for Four Hands (1918) [5:47]
L’embarquement pour Cythère (1951) [2:16]
Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos (reduction by Francis Poulenc) (1932) [18:49]
Lucille Chung (piano), Alessio Bax (piano)
rec. 23-27 January 2015, the Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Saxmundham, UK

This recital of Poulenc piano music draws from four decades of the composer’s work, including two solo pieces and three for two pianists. The two solo pieces are themselves collections of miniatures, averaging about two minutes apiece. The only long piece is the Concerto for two pianos, which is a little under twenty minutes.

Poulenc’s music is a kind of sophisticated simplicity. Alternately chaste and naughty, these pieces offer knowing winks along the way. Poulenc writes with the clarity of Mozart or Haydn, but inevitably tinged with nostalgia. Of all of the forms assumed by musical neoclassicism in the last century, Poulenc’s was perhaps the gentlest rebuke to his romantic predecessors.

Poulenc was ever attentive to the music of others, which he often borrowed, commented upon, mocked, or honored. The first Novelette summons the spirit of Chopin, while the second is much more modern, perhaps evoking Prokofiev. The final movement is based on a theme by Manuel de Falla. The Novelettes make a compelling suite, perhaps because of the disparate musical spirits involved, and despite the three decades separating the last piece from the first two.

The fifteen Improvisations were a Poulenc favorite. These graceful and sometimes mercurial little pieces were composed over three decades, with ten from the 1930s. The title sounds casual, but they are carefully polished gems. I will not discuss each, but call attention to three in A minor: the melancholy of No. 5, the unsettled agitation of No. 8, and the calming serenity of No. 13. The series also incudes an homage to Franz Schubert, and another to Edith Piaf.

Lucille Chung plays with energy and refinement. These resemble the classic and elegant performances of Gabriel Tacchino, but without his brittle recorded sound. Here the piano is captured in a rich, almost creamy recording, with a solid bass. Similar musical and sonic virtues mark the three works for two pianists, where Chung is joined by her husband, Alessio Bax.

The early (1918) four-hand piano Sonata reminds one of Stravinsky in its rhythmic insistence. Its three movements are brief but intense. L’embarquement pour Cythère, taken from 1951 film music has an irrepressible lilt.

The Concerto for two pianos is played in a reduction made by Poulenc. The original is brilliantly scored for an orchestra that includes trombones, tuba, and five percussionists. Poulenc’s simplification for two pianos is something of a tour de force. If you are fond of this concerto, you will miss some favorite orchestral touches, but it is impressive how convincing and appealing this version is. The two finest features of the concerto are preserved. One is the limpidly Mozartean Larghetto, which still sings along in bittersweet harmonies. The other is the gamelan-inspired music found in the outer movements. Poulenc had recently heard a gamelan brought to Paris for an international exposition, and succumbed to its distinctive sounds as an inspiration for presenting two pianos in his concerto. If you imagine gamelan and Mozart to be an odd pairing, Poulenc makes their conjunction seem completely natural. Thanks to Chung and Bax for bringing this small-scale version of a wonderful concerto to us. If you do not know Poulenc’s keyboard works, this recording provides a fine introduction.

Richard Kraus

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)

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