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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sonata for Two Pianos [24:49]
L’Embarquement pour Cythère [2:23]
Capriccio d’après le Bal masqué [5:23]
Elégie pour deux pianos [7:00]
Sonata for four-handed piano [6:52]
12 Improvisations [28:34]
Onda Verde (pianos)
rec. 2016/18, Kleiner Konzertsall, Musikhochschule, Munich/Kleiner Saal, Gasteig, Munich

Any disc of Poulenc piano music is going to be full of charms and delights. It was in instrument on which he felt most at home and was able to express in a disarmingly direct way the many facets of his personality. Here we have the sombre, serious thinker, the playful, mischievous imp and the society darling, enticing his hearers with nimble fingered jokes. What makes this disc even more delightful is that it is music for two pianists on both one and two pianos, and in Eva-Maria May and Alexander Wienand, it finds two players who not only work in perfect partnership, but are fully infused with the spirit of Poulenc.

Interestingly Onda Verde, as this two-member ensemble calls itself, is a teacher-student partnership, Alexander Wienand listing among his teachers at the Music Academy of Würzburg, Eva-Maria May. Wienand also makes much of his interest in jazz and improvisation, and whether it is that which gives this disc a lovely feeling of freedom or simply that the two of them are so clearly on the same wavelength, these are certainly very convincing performances of repertory much of which has not really caught the public attention before now.

Composed between 1952 and 1953 for the American pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, who gave its first performance in London in November 1953, the Sonata for Two Pianos is a work of truly symphonic proportions, and from the outset it is clear that May and Wienand are taking the expansive approach. The statuesque first movement unfolds with an almost majestic tread, its abrupt dissonances and sudden dynamic changes never allowed to disturb the relentless onward tread of the music. At the other end of the scale, the second movement comes across as a wild, galloping ride which, again, is pushed forward with such impetuosity by these players that sometimes it feels as if the fragments of melody and Poulenc’s typically smoochy themes are just managing to hang on for dear life. The eerie central section here has something akin to menace about it, which suits the “Devil’s ride” character of the movement as a whole. Poulenc described the third movement as the “heart of the sonata”, but is here given more a sense of poise than emotional depth, as it imperiously strolls through some strangely labyrinthine harmonies. A sense of playfulness in the final movement is slightly tempered here by the relatively moderate speed the duo has chosen for it. But that speed gives far greater impact to the occasional grandiloquent gestures.

The other Sonata on the disc is a very different affair, and is probably the best known work here. Composed in 1918, revised in 1939 and first published in 1990, it is short, witty, satirical and packs so much into its six minutes that it seems much longer. We have hints of Satie and Chabrier, but mostly we have Poulenc at his most witty, and it is that wit and sparkling humour which is so vividly brought out by Onda Verde here.

Between them come two playful miniatures and something rather more weighty. L’Embarquement pour Cythère is a piece of pure fairground music, evoking the carousels of turn-of-the-century. Arranged from the film score to a 1951 movie about an island devoted to “free, unrepentant pleasure, far from all conflicts”, this is a joyous romp for the two pianists. So, too is the perky Capriccio which draws on music Poulenc had earlier used in a cantata for baritone and orchestras. Again May and Wienand takes us into the fairground with exuberant, bubbly playing, but change gear with remarkable fluency when the music abruptly takes on a Spanish sultriness powerfully reminiscent of Falla before moving into something of a cakewalk. The Elégie of 1959, which curiously gets omitted from the English language notes in the bilingual (English and German) booklet, is a richly expressive work, very much the Poulenc scarred by two world wars and deep personal losses. Also written for Gold and Fizdale it was a brief but heartfelt memorial for the Comtesse de Polignac (for whom Poulenc had written his organ concerto)

The disc ends with 15 Improvisations composed over almost 30 years between 1932 and 1959. Short, bite-sized morsels of pure Poulenc, two of them are dedicated to two of his musical idols (Franz Schubert and Edith Piaf). The performances have a feel of true improvisatory freedom about them, rather like personal musings from the pianist, and wrap up a disc of unalloyed musical pleasures.

Marc Rochester

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