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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Piano Concerto in C sharp minor (1949) [19:00]
Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani in G minor (1934-38) [22:25]
Stabat Mater (1950) [30:56]
Alexandre Tharaud (piano)
James O’Donnell (organ)
Kate Royal (soprano)
London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. live, 26 March, 2014 (organ concerto); 25 October 2013, Royal Festival Hall, London
Latin text & English translation included.

The performances on this disc were given during Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s final season as the LPO’s Principal Guest Conductor; he occupied that post between 2009 and 2014. I think I’m right in saying that the performances of the Piano Concerto and the Stabat Mater are new to the catalogue. James O’ Donnell’s account of the Organ Concerto has been released before. It was a performance given as part of the ‘Pull Out all the Stops’ festival, celebrating the restoration of the Royal Festival Hall organ, which had been out of use since 2005. In that 2014 concert Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony was also given and the two works were issued on the LPO’s own label, a release that was very warmly greeted as a Download by Dan Morgan. I was sorry to miss the original release so I’m glad that I’ve now caught up with it in part.

This disc nicely shows two sides of Poulenc. The Piano Concerto represents Poulenc as the witty, playful entertainer while the Stabat Mater shows us Poulenc, the homme sérieux. The Organ Concerto displays both facets, it seems to me, though it leans heavily towards the serious side of Poulenc’s nature.

What an adorable work the Piano Concerto is! It may not plumb great depths of feeling but it is written with consummate skill and entertains the listener from start to finish. It was written for Poulenc himself to play during a concert tour of North America and he premiered it in January 1950 with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony. The work as a whole is full of melodies that are characteristic of the composer and though the orchestra plays a very full part in the proceedings there is ample opportunity for the soloist to shine. The first of its three movements opens with a deliciously fluent melody. Throughout the movement the melodies are charming and this sets the tone for much of the movement, even though there’s a solemn episode later on. The slow movement is, for the most part, calm and relaxed. Here we can enjoy Poulenc’s lovely lyrical vein and the poised playing of both Alexandre Tharaud and the LPO gives great pleasure. Midway through there’s a much more dynamic episode and here the playing is sharply pointed. As Anthony Burton points out in his very useful notes, the scampering finale includes references to the Stephen Foster song ‘Old folks at home’, more widely known, perhaps, as ‘Way down upon the Swanee river’; that’s so typical of Poulenc’s gamin streak. The present performance is full of wit and sparkle. I enjoyed this account of the Piano Concerto very much.

The Piano Concerto was written in the space of just a few months, which is a fine example of Poulenc’s facility. By contrast, the Organ Concerto took him the best part of four years to compose and Anthony Burton says that he accomplished the work “with much difficulty and hesitation”. Though cast in a single movement, the concerto falls into seven sections and these are separately tracked here, which is helpful. Essentially, the sections alternate fast and slow music. The orchestration is restricted to strings and timpani and while the colours available on the organ arguably render woodwind and brass superfluous anyway, Poulenc’s chosen scoring imparts an overall air of austerity to the music. Though considerable prowess is required on the part of the soloist, this is not a mere display piece.

In this performance James O’ Donnell makes very resourceful use of the newly-refurbished organ’s tonal resources. This is apparent right at the start when the organ’s suitably reedy sound commands our attention. The performance that follows is a fine one from all concerned. I like, for instance, the crispness and energy in the second section (Allegro giocoso) but equally I admire the way the depth of feeling in the music is brought out in the following Andante moderato. The fifth section is marked Très calme. Lent. Though the performance is properly tranquil there’s also an underlying sense of purpose, which is just as apt. In the subdued concluding section (Tempo d’introduction: Largo) Poulenc includes important solos for violin and cello and these are expressively done before the organ briefly but very emphatically brings proceedings to a close. This is a very fine concerto which contains music of no little depth. James O’ Donnell and Yannick Nézet-Séguin do it proper justice.

Last, but by no means least, comes the Stabat Mater. As this fine performance reminded me, it’s a very eloquent work that deserves to be heard far more often than is the case. It was composed in 1950 in memory of Poulenc’s friend, the theatre designer Christian Bérard, who had died the previous year. The setting divides the medieval poem into twelve sections, most of them quite compact. In three of the movements a soprano soloist joins the choir – she has no solo movement of her own – and the orchestra is substantial but generally used with restraint. The mixed choir is divided into five parts and it’s significant, I think, that the extra choral line consists of baritones – so we have SATBarB – and this often serves to darken the choral timbre. Much of the music is darkly dramatic. There are a couple of quicker, lighter sections and here it might be thought that the relative lightness of tone is somewhat at odds with the words. I don’t believe that’s the case: the two lighter movements provide very necessary contrast and some respite from the austere, even severe tone of much of the rest of the work. This performance is very fine. The London Philharmonic Choir sings with great commitment and they meet all Poulenc’s requirements very successfully. Thus, for instance, I admire their sustained legato singing in the third section ‘O quam tristis’ but just as admirable is their fierce attack in the preceding ‘Cujus animam gementem’ The LPO plays splendidly throughout and Kate Royal, singing with rich tone and dramatic involvement, is a very good soloist. Yannick Nézet-Séguin clearly has a fine feeling for the score and he leads a performance that is as committed as it is assured.

All three of these excellent performances are presented in very good sound and the notes by Anthony Burton are excellent. The performances are live but there’s no distracting audience noise and only after the Stabat Mater is there any applause.

In short, this is a highly desirable Poulenc collection.

John Quinn

Previous review: Marc Rochester



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