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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto for Piano & Orchestra [19:35]
Trio for Piano, Oboe & Bassoon [13:28]
Concert ChampÍtre [25:18]
Sonata for Oboe & Piano [14:02]
Mark Bebbington (piano), John Roberts (oboe), Jonathan Davies (bassoon)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Jan Latham-Koenig
rec. 2019, St John’s, Smith Square, London
RESONUS RES10256 [72:32]

The big surprise here is the Concert ChampÍtre with the piano taking on the solo role more usually taken by the harpsichord. Poulenc himself may have sanctioned this by performing it himself on the piano, but composer-sanctioned or not, this delightful concerto suffers from the cumbersome presence of the piano. It lacks that brittle quality which allows the harpsichord to give such a wonderful edge to the constantly shifting moods and the outbursts of mischievous wit. Mark Bebbington handles the solo part deftly, and wants for nothing when it comes to crispness of articulation or speediness of retort, but this performance has more curiosity value than insight, and nothing here will convince me that this is really a viable alternative to the harpsichord version.

Bebbington’s quickness of delivery, his nimble-fingeredness and his lively approach to Poulenc’s witty outbursts serve the Piano Concerto well, and he is well supported by the Royal Philharmonic. Both concertos suffer, however, from a somewhat leaden approach from Jan Latham-Koenig, who seems to try too hard to inject lightness and vitality into them; it all sounds a little too forced. Even the delightfully throwaway ending to the Piano Concerto seems a touch too deliberate and careful to produce its usual magic.

If the concertos are a bit of a disappointment, the two chamber works bring real sparkle and vitality to the proceedings. The Trio sets out its stool straight away with gloriously self-important statements from bassoon and oboe followed by a deliciously impish romp with all three players having a great deal of fun (and producing an impressive level of ensemble) in some lightning fast scale passages and perky little dance rhythms. John Roberts, Jonathan Davies and Mark Bebbington seem to have the ideal partnership, in which the joy of music-making is always evident and fully supported by some outstanding technical command.

A pleasing feature of the Trio is the avoidance of sentimentality – something which can so easily creep into Poulenc slow movements. That is even more significant in the Oboe Sonata, where Roberts’ expounds with luxuriant ease the graceful opening melody above Bebbington’s beautifully poised piano accompaniment. It is charming, graceful and touching, while the closing movement has an almost sombre edge to it, which is more atmospheric than emotional. Both movements provide the perfect complement to the perky, brittle writing of the central Scherzo. The playing from both Roberts and Bebbington is superb, and the recording excellent.

Marc Rochester

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