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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major (1928-31) [18:32] Germaine TAILLEFERRE (1892-1983)
Ballad for Piano and Orchestra (1920-22) [14:30] Nadia BOULANGER (1887-1979)
Fantaisie (variée) for Piano and Orchestra (1912) [19:49] Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Piano Concerto (1936) [18:19]
Florian Uhlig (piano)
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern/Pablo González
rec. 9-14 November 2015, Emmerich-Smola-Saal, SWR Studio, Kaiserslautern, Germany SWR MUSIC SWR19027CD [71:30]
This is the second volume of Florian Uhlig’s recordings of French piano concertante works with the German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (DRP) under Pablo González. The orchestra was created in 2007 following the merger of the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Radio Orchestra Kaiserslautern. I have not heard volume 1 and it has not been reviewed on this website, to my knowledge. That volume contains the Ravel G major Concerto, Debussy’s Fantaisie, Poulenc’s Piano Concerto, and the Françaix Concertino. If anything, this second volume would seem to have a more enticing programme, since only the Ravel Left Hand Concerto has received plenty of exposure on disc. As it turns out, though, this disc is more of a curate’s egg.
The Ravel concerto naturally overshadows the other works on the CD. While Uhlig and his cohorts clearly know their way around the music, there are many better options for this work. This account’s greatest attribute is its recorded sound, especially concerning the orchestra, which turns in a first-class performance. The trombone solos in this rendition are more jazzy than usual. After a rather unsettled beginning, Uhlig has the notes well under his fingers. It is just that the familiar concerto benefits from a more nuanced interpretation than the plainspoken account here. One need only to turn to Michel Béroff with Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony or even more so to Krystian Zimerman and Pierre Boulez with the Cleveland Orchestra (both DG) to hear what’s missing. It is true that purely as sound, Béroff’s recording can seem bass light, but Zimerman’s is in every way as superb as Uhlig’s and his performance has so much more character. For pianism equal to Zimerman’s you have to go way back to Robert Casadesus with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra to hear the strings of notes in the final cadenza so clear, sounding like droplets of water. Of course, that recording has really shown its age with the orchestra relegated to the background. The piano-orchestra balance in Zimerman’s account seems ideal, where in Uhlig’s some of the solo instruments—I’m thinking of the bassoon and horn in particular—sound as if they are separately miked or recorded up-close.
What makes this disc unusual and recommendable for those collecting the series are the other works, even though none of these attains the stature of the Ravel. I was intrigued to see the Tailleferre Ballad. One knows her primarily as the female member of “Les Six,” regularly represented by Poulenc, Milhaud, and Honegger. Her Ballad does not sound like the music of any of the other members of the group except for the use of polytonality. The music begins mysteriously as if in a misty, almost impressionistic haze, but with dissonance. The piano writing recalls Ravel and the work meanders a bit until about the 8:20 mark, when it comes to life with a sparkling piano part and later a waltz theme and some nice detail from the woodwinds and trumpet. The Ballad ends quietly with piano ripples under sustained chords in the orchestra. It is a pleasant enough work, if no masterpiece.
That’s more than I can say for Nadia Boulanger’s Fantaisie. Granted it is an early composition, but, based on what I hear here, it is undoubtedly a good thing Boulanger turned to teaching and conducting to seal her reputation has one of the most influential people in twentieth-century music. When I first saw “Boulanger” listed among the disc’s contents, I assumed it was her sister, Lili Boulanger, and not Nadia, for Lili was an exceptional composer during her tragically short life. Nadia’s Fantaisie sounds like Franck brought up to date. The imposing brass chords in the beginning before the piano enters clearly recall the Belgian master and the theme that of Franck’s Symphonic Variations. Like Franck, the orchestration is rather thick and the work can easily turn bombastic. Rachmaninov’s influence is also evident in the piano writing and there is even a near quote of the Russian’s favourite Dies Irae. Without any other accounts with which to compare, I find Uhlig plays this and the Tailleferre Ballad quite well.
It is something of a relief to turn to the Françaix Concerto. It may be considered as so much “French fluff,” but it is well written and very enjoyable for the most part. Uhlig and the orchestra seem to be having fun with it and it is a good way to end the disc. The concerto is in four movements. The first movement is a really good romp, light and dance-like with a sprinkling of “wrong notes.” This is followed by an intermezzo, marked Andante that is tuneful with a lyrical piano theme, which is then assumed by bassoon and flute. A catchy scherzo comes next with the piano having a somewhat irregular rhythm before the orchestra takes over humorously before a cute ending. Unfortunately, the last movement is the least memorable of the four, starting on an assertive theme with the piano and orchestra like a fast march and later racing off to end on a high chord. Again, perhaps it is no masterpiece, but lots of fun.
For those wanting this particular programme I see no reason to hesitate, but I don’t think I will revisit it very often. SWR Music, as I noted in an earlier review, tends to shortchange the listener when it comes to illuminating notes on the works presented. This is especially crucial when three of the four pieces on this disc are not that well known.