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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Piano solos and duos
Track-listing at end of review
Lucille Chung, Alessio Bax (piano)
rec. January 2015, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, UK
Reviewed as a Studio Master from Hyperion Records
Pdf booklet included

I first encountered the French-Canadian pianist Lucille Chung – and her Bari-born husband, Alessio Bax – in a highly virtuosic programme of duos by Stravinsky, Brahms and Piazzolla. I fully endorse Albert Lam’s enthusiastic review of that album. The phenomenal energy and attack in the Stravinsky, the lilt and glitter of the Brahms and the rhythmic vitality of the Piazzolla show them to be a truly dynamic and responsive partnership. Key to their appeal is the palpable sense of enjoyment that attends the music-making; factor in a superb recording and you have a very special disc indeed.

This time it’s Chung who takes centre stage, with Bax joining forces with her in the Sonata for four hands, L'embarquement pour Cythère and the Concerto for two pianos. The first six of Poulenc’s Improvisations, which date from 1932, manage to combine tautness and clarity with bursts of pure rhapsody. Chung’s articulation is beyond reproach – just sample the jewelled loveliness of No. 2 – and her judicious pedal work ensures the music is more about flow than flood.

The next four Improvisations, composed in 1933 and 1934, are no less alluring. The burble at the start of No. 7 is most beautifully done, and the ending as wistful as one could wish for. The remarkable precision of No. 10 is especially well caught. Nos. 11 and 12, which date from 1941, make a delightful pair; the latter, a disarming little waltz, puts me in mind of Gottschalk. No. 15 is a moody little tribute to the chanteuse Edith Piaf. Engineers Mike Hatch and Chris Kalcov have come up with a full, detailed sound that does full justice to these kaleidoscopic scores. I was most impressed with their work on Bax’s Scriabin and Mussorgsky album, which was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2015 (review).

The three Novelettes, written over 30 years, are the last of the solo pieces here. Chung scales and propels these little ‘uns very nicely indeed; No. 2 is sharply characterised and the Iberian languor of the Novelette sur un thème de Manuel de Falla is superbly evoked. Then again, Chung has no trouble divining the exact mood and manner of these moreish miniatures; such alert and sensitive pianism is always a joy to hear. In fact, the warmth and intimacy of her playing recreates the alchemy that exists between artist and listeners at a live recital.

The three-movement Sonata for four hands – composed in 1918 and revised in 1939 – finds Poulenc at his most percussive. It’s hard to listen to the first movement without thinking of the accompaniment to a Buster Keaton silent – The General, perhaps – such is its propulsive energy and flair. The remaining movements are no less entertaining, with Chung and Bax gleefully striking sparks off each other. As for the excellent stereo spread it enhances the antiphonal aspects of the two-piano piece L'embarquement pour Cythère. Goodness, what seductive playing and sound.

The collection ends with Poulenc’s 1932 reduction of his Concerto for two pianos. It’s a work that seems to encapsulate what we’ve heard thus far; feisty, winsome and frankly irresistible I doubt you’ll hear a more charismatic or rhythmically adept performance than this. As ever, Chung and Bax cleave and interleave as only true partners can. Incidentally, for a terific performance of the original concerto look no further than Sanja and Lidija Bizjak (review).

Chung is fluent in the solos and fiery in the duos; a sonic treat, too.

Dan Morgan

Improvisation No. 1 in B minor FP63 No. 1 [1:35]
Improvisation No. 2 in A flat major FP63 No. 2 [1:37]
Improvisation No. 3 in B minor, FP63 No. 3[1:36]
Improvisation No. 4 in A flat major FP63 No. 4 [1:30]
Improvisation No. 5 in A minor FP63 No. 5 [1:45]
Improvisation No. 6 in B flat major FP63 No. 6 [1:35]
Improvisation No. 7 in C major FP63 No. 7 [2:44]
Improvisation No. 8 in A minor FP63 No. 8 [1:36]
Improvisation No. 9 in D major FP63 No. 9 [1:29]
Improvisation No. 10 in F major 'Éloge des gammes' FP63 No. 10 [2:11]
Improvisation No. 11 in G minor FP113 No. 1 [0:51]
Improvisation No. 12 in E flat major 'Hommage à Schubert' FP113 No. 2 [2:10]
Improvisation No. 13 in A minor FP170 No. 1 [2:23]
Improvisation No. 14 in D flat major FP170 No. 2 [1:28]
Improvisation No. 15 in C minor 'Hommage à Edith Piaf' FP176 [3:23]
Novelette in C major FP47 No. 1 [2:43]
Novelette in B flat minor FP47 No. 2 [2:01]
Novelette sur un thème de Manuel de Falla FP173 [2:40]
Sonata for four hands FP8 [5:47] *
L'embarquement pour Cythère FP150 [2:16] *
Concerto for two pianos in D minor FP61 [18:50] *
* with Alessio Bax



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