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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Piano Concerto [19:01]
Concerto for Two Pianos in D minor [18:33]
Organ Concerto in G minor [21:19]
Christian Ihle Hadland, Håvard Gimse (piano)
Kåre Nordstoga (organ)
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Thomas Søndergård, Peter Szilvay
rec. 2011, New Radio Concert Hall, Oslo; 2012, Oslo Cathedral

Any orchestra CD which includes tracks recorded in different locations, at different times and under different conductors runs the risk of inconsistency. Sadly, that is very much the case here. While the two piano concerto recordings are serviceable enough, the Organ Concerto is a major disappointment. With this repertory pretty extensively covered on disc already, this Norwegian addition to the discography is unlikely to make any significant impact or attract even the most ardent collectors.

We are not told which of the two conductors listed is directing which performances, but I assume the two piano concertos were performed under the baton of Thomas Søndergård. He takes a relatively safe and undemonstrative approach, allowing the music to speak for itself. It does not exactly bubble or fizz, but in the Piano Concerto, Christian Ihle Hadland reveals suitably light and agile fingerwork and skips happily along, giving a pleasing lift to this most delightfully tongue-in-cheek of all piano concertos. Perhaps the final “Rondeau à la Française” is a little too rushed both for the clarity of orchestral detail to shine through or for the impertinent appearance of the “Swanee River” theme to have its proper impact.

Hadland and Håvard Gimse are a good pairing for the Concerto for Two Pianos, and they are suitably vivacious in the manic first movement, Søndergård happily dancing along with them, and managing the abrupt switches of mood and speed with authority. The touches of sentimentality, Pointillist passages and pseudo-Classical gestures are all easily accommodated into a performance which is high on energy and colour, even if, generally, the orchestral playing has a certain one-dimensional feel to it. An air of mystery hangs over the second movement, with the piano ostinatos barely affected by the occasional interjections from the orchestra, while the Mozartian theme in its second half is eloquently expounded by the pianos with, again, the orchestral involvement kept very much at arm’s length. The playful third movement with its circus-like antics from the pianists is somewhat dampened by a slightly serious feel from the orchestra (as if the orchestra’s reserve of humour was all used up in the staged “silly picture” in the booklet) but here, as throughout both these piano concertos, the focus is very much on the piano writing with the orchestra largely held back in the role of a peripheral support act.

The problem with the Organ Concerto lies largely in the lumpy organ, which offers chunks of sound rather than the kind of fluid stream of musical colours Poulenc most clearly had in mind (even if he did nto know the instrument well enough to provide his own registration indications). This, along with a certain felling of disconnect between organ and orchestra and a general failure for the conductor (possibly Peter Szilvay) to emerge from the trees of Poulenc’s myriad unrelated ideas to oversee the wood of his overall vision, turns this performance of the Concerto into an incoherent series of unrelated musical gesture.

Marc Rochester

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