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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Les soirées de Nazelles (1930-36) [32:00]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kinderszenen, Op. 15 (1838) [15:47]
Carnaval, Op. 9 (1834-5) [31:21]
Simon Callaghan (piano)
rec. 2019, Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK

This is a very well-thought-out and considered programme that Simon Callaghan presents. Some would assert that Les soirées de Nazelles are Poulenc’s Carnaval, such is the affinity between his cycle and that of Robert Schumann. Add Kinderszenen to the mix, another set of character pieces, and the outcome is a recipe that works very well indeed.

The suite Les soirées de Nazelles does not appear that often. It was begun in the summer of 1930 at the home of Poulenc’s elderly friend, Virginie Lienard, and bears a dedication to “Aunt Lienard”. It was not finished until 1936. It consists of a set of eight variations, based on improvisations on a theme, which are “portraits” of the composer’s friends. These initial vignettes were improvised at Nazelles. Examples are: Aunt Lienard in variation VIII, Pierre Bernac in variation VI, and the composer himself in the Finale. Poulenc had originally considered titling the work Le carnaval de Nazelles, having Schumann’s work in mind.

The virtuosic extravagances of the work offer the pianist both delights and challenges. The opening Préambule is a gruff waltz, which leads into the first variation Le comble de la distinction, with its exotic flourishes. Le charme enjoleur (No. 6) also features a charming waltz. Le contentement de soi (No. 7), which follows, is vaudevillian in character, in total contrast to the dreamy and misty Le goût du malheur (No. 8). Throughout, Callaghan strikes a comfortable balance between exuberance and restraint. He always makes the music sound as if were being created on the wing. Poulenc, in one of his revisions of the work, erased almost four pages from the Final. Callaghan’s PhD research led him to find these lost pages, and he includes both versions in the recording.

Much more familiar are the thirteen pieces Schumann published as Kinderszenen. As with Poulenc’s cycle, there is a mixture of introspection and exuberance. Callaghan captures that essential child-like quality and sense of wonder. Ritter vom Steckenpferd and Glückes genug are infused with affability, whilst Träumerei and Der Dichter spricht are more reflective and inward looking.

Equally persuasive is Callaghan’s depiction of a masked ball in Carnaval. He gets to the very essence of each individual piece, skilfully crafting them. All the energy and ebullience is tangible. Florestan and Eusebius, the fictional characters who denote the duality of Schumann’s personality, are ever-present, and can be recognized. Florestan represents the impulsive, passionate, bold and brash side of his personality; Eusebius – the dreamy, melancholic side. The work has particular significance for Callaghan. He performed it at his final recital at the Royal College of Music in 2006.

The Wyastone venue, true to form, provides the ideal acoustic for solo piano: warm, intimate and not too resonant. The Steinway grand is regulated and tuned to perfection, and has a very agreeable sound. Unusually, no timings are included either in the booklet or on the back tray card.

Stephen Greenbank

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