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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Die Geschichte von Babar, dem kleinen Elefanten (1940-1945) [27:49]
Elégie pour deux pianos (en accords alternés) (1951) [7:01]
L'Embarquement pour Cythère, Valse Musette pour deux pianos [2:23]
L’Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant [28:35]
The Story of Babar, the little elephant [27:19]
15 Improvisations for piano (1932-59) [28:38]
Capriccio d'après le "Bal masqué" pour deux pianos (1952) [5:23]
Eva-Maria May and Alexander Wienand (piano)
Stefan Wilkening (narrator, German), Julien Thorel (narrator, French),
Norman Shetler (narrator, English)
rec. January & March 2016, Kleiner Konzertsaal, Musikhochschule, Munich/Germany
PALADINO MUSIC PMR0072 [65:50 + 61:23]

There can be few of us who have not heard of Jean de Brunhoff’s story of Babar the little elephant. As the booklet notes for this release tell us, Francis Poulenc’s own life story has its connections to Babar. His mother died in 1915 and his father not long after – “the lost paradise of youth… melancholic yearning… followed by Poulenc’s own success story culminating in the coronation of Babar and the joie de vivre of the festive marriage celebration…” These are all qualities that can be read into this colourful and descriptive score, which started out as an improvisation to entertain Poulenc’s sisters’ children and was finished five years later.

The story with music is given three times here, the English version delivered with the pleasantly modulated tones and natural style of Norman Shetler. Whether the French or German versions are useful to you will depend on your circumstances, but I can’t imagine a nicer way of advancing your linguistic skills. The German version is given with the even richer tones of Stefan Wilkening, and the French version with the Julien Thorel’s slightly more impersonal clarity, though he too warms up nicely as the story becomes more involved and plays a marvellous elephant. All of these narrators project kindliness and sympathy with the story and its intended age group, and I can imagine this recording becoming a big favourite in homes all over the place. Eva-Maria May performs Poulenc’s delightful music with plenty of verve, and the whole thing reminds one why this piece in its completed form has long been a popular choice for theatre-minded musicians.

There are a few alternatives around for Babar. Naxos has French and English versions on 8.553615 with the advantage of pianist Alexandre Tharaud and the arguabl irrita disadvantage of child narrators. Deutsche Grammophon has its French recording with pianist Jean-Marc Luisada in deadly serious mode and the amusingly GitanesandGuignolet laden voice of Jeanne Moreau – very much a noir, late-night adult version of Babar. For another Englishlanguage version there is the Centaur label with pianist Neir Rutman and Tony Randall narrating, a more actrly performance than Norman Shetler and to my mind not really preferable, though reflected in higher drama from the piano.

The additional music for this Paladino release is another attraction. The Elégie for two pianos is given a fine redition – “to be played loud… as if one were improvising, a cigar in mouth and a glass of cognac on the piano.” Is there any other way to play Poulenc? Not so much a swaggering piece as one that is solemn and prayer-like the May/Wienand duo perform with vision and sensitivity. L'Embarquement pour Cythère is light and fluffy but one of those tunes you will be whistling all day once you’ve heard it. The 15 Improvisations are all brief and “like a genial book of sketches” – shavings from the composer’s workbench that refer to or originate ideas to be found in Poulenc’s other compositions. These are delightful to dip into and explore as well as to experience as a cycle, covering as they do just about every aspect of Poulenc’s moods and style. The final Capriccio for two pianos is a spectacular close to the programme in Poulenc’s high-energy mode, bouncy rhythms and catchy tunes all falling over each other, the musical equivalent of a raised glass of champagne amidst a raucous New-Year celebration – the quiet tango section like a view of the party’s wreckage after everyone has left, and a final energetic hair of the dog, a playful clear-up and the promise of an optimistic future.

This is a very fine release indeed and highly recommendable for both content and performances. The piano sound is decent but not spectacularly wonderful, with a mild boxiness in the midrange and recorded in what sounds like a fairly small acoustic – perhaps with a sprinkling of added resonance to help things out. With a satisfying bass and plenty of detail in the sound these are all mild comments however, and shouldn’t put anyone off acquiring Babar – a move no-one will be likely to regret, young or old.

Dominy Clements



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