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Friedrich GULDA (1930-2000)
Concerto for Myself [36:14]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 1 in D, ‘Classical’, op.25 [14:15]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D minor, FP 61
Mischa Cheung (piano), Yulia Miloslavskaya (piano)
Giraud Ensemble Chamber Orchestra/Sergey Simakov
rec. 2019, Zurich
SOLO MUSICA SM325 [69:58]

Very brave of the excellent Giraud Ensemble Chamber orchestra to begin this disc with the Friedrich Gulda concerto. This piece of nonsense comes into that twilit category of ‘Richard Clayderman meets P.D.Q Bach’. The only mystery is why the orchestra and Mischa Cheung spent their valuable time learning and recording it (though all concerned play with commendable commitment).

Things get better – a lot better – after that, and the performances of the two masterpieces that follow are of a really high class. Prokofiev explained that his Classical Symphony of 1918 came about because he thought: “if Haydn were alive today he would compose just as he did before, but at the same time would include something new in his manner of composition. I wanted to compose such a symphony: a symphony in the classical style.” So this symphony, which went on to become one of the composer’s most popular works, started life as an exercise of sorts, and is a brilliant piece of musical pastiche.

Takes a bit of playing, but this talented young ensemble despatches it with plenty of wit and charm. Still, there are dozens of terrific recordings of this work, and Simakov’s occasional distortions (e.g., the return of the theme in the Gavotte) and the inexplicable omission of the repeat in the first movement – which would have added two minutes at most to a 69-minute recording – probably rule it out from becoming a top recommendation. Mine would be Serebrier with the Scottish CO on ASV (CD DCA 760), but take your pick!

The Poulenc two-piano concerto of 1932 is another delicious work, full of teasing allusions to Mozart and other composers. This time we have a performance that fully lives up to the work in question. The two young pianists, Mischa Cheung and Yulia Miloslavskaya, give it all they’ve got, and bring out the vertiginously changing moods and styles with stunning aplomb.

Despite its kaleidoscopic mood shifts, this concerto is essentially a deeply felt work. Its central Larghetto is one of the most heart-breakingly beautiful things Poulenc wrote. The work was composed at the behest of the Princesse de Polignac (a.k.a. Winaretta Singer, heiress to the sewing-machine fortune), and is dedicated to her. If you wanted a piece to sum up Paris between the wars, I just cannot think of a better or more delightful one. The recording, outstanding throughout, brings out all the details in the orchestration. Listen to the cello solo in (deliberately) squeaky harmonics near the end of the first movement, or the bassoons quietly leading the Larghetto to its close at 4:50. The tricky balance between the two soloists, and between them and the orchestra, is as good as I have ever heard it.

So, an uneven disc, but do give the Gulda a try. You never know, you might even enjoy it! The remaining tracks are emphatically worth hearing, and I would go as far as to say that the disc deserves a place in your library for the Poulenc alone.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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