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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Aubade, FP51a [18:46]
Le Bal masque, FP60 [17:29]
Flute Sonata, FP164 [12:47]
Sextet, FP100 [18:19]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Emer McDonough (flute)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Jan Latham-Koenig
rec. 2020, Cadogan Hall, London
RESONUS RES10276 [67:53]

Here is a box of delights for any Poulenc enthusiast. This CD is part of pianist Mark Bebbington’s Poulenc series, which began last year with a disc devoted to the Piano Concerto, the Concerto Champêtre, the Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano, and the Oboe Sonata. This new one contains two quite early works – Aubade and Le Bal masque – and two more mature masterpieces – the Flute Sonata and the Sextet. This last is given a truly memorable performance, passionate and uncompromising. All the wind players are top class, and Bebbington shows his true chamber music credentials, able to withdraw sensitively into the background when required, then come to the fore when necessary.

Bebbington has an avowed love of French piano music, which he traces back to his studies in Paris with Aldo Ciccolini, who, though born in Naples, became a French citizen and a famous exponent of the country’s piano music. Aubade makes a great opener for this CD, partly because it is a strikingly austere work, and thus counteracts the casual opinion of Poulenc, especially in his Les Six days, as a flippant enfant terrible. The scoring is unusual; no violins, no percussion other than timpani. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is scored for a very similar instrumental ensemble to support the choir, and, as ever with Poulenc, the influence of the Russian master is clear; nevertheless, I emphasise that the Stravinsky premiere was a year after that of the Poulenc.

Aubade is described as a ‘concerto choréographique’, composed to accompany a ballet (long-forgotten) about the goddess Diana and her loneliness. The austerity is declared starkly by the jagged theme given to the brass at the beginning. That statement dominates the work, which is in eight sections (rather than ‘movements’), though there are more relaxed moments of Poulenc in his ‘Mozartian’ vein. Bebbington and his RPO colleagues give the work sharp outlines, and portray the varying moods strongly. I remain loyal, however, to my favourite performance on disc, which is that by Louis Lortie with Edward Gardner on Chandos, a version which penetrates to the bitterness at the heart of the work. It’s a masterpiece, redolent of its era yet easily transcending it.

Roderick Williams, who sings the solo part in the next tracks, Le Bal masqué, is a staggeringly versatile musician. Not only a distinguished singer but also a composer, he is best known for his interpretations of the English song repertoire. But here he shows that he has an excellent command of the French language, and puts across well the bizarre, sadistic humour of Max Jacob’s verse in this ‘Profane Cantata’. The piece is a riot, and great fun for singer and instrumentalists, though it probably ideally needs a French singer. François Le Roux is the singer on the magnificent Decca Poulenc recording of the mid-90s, with Pascal Rogé at the piano and Charles Dutoit directing, the whole thing outrageously camp and OTT.
The Flute Sonata is much better known, indeed one of Poulenc’s most celebrated works and rightly so. It was written for the great French flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, and is one of the most perfect works ever written for the instrument. The Irish flautist Emer McDonough gives a truly outstanding performance. She is fully in command of the technical aspects, yet it is her lyrical playing, especially in the middle movement (Cantilena), where she is very moving. Significantly, Poulenc made a comparison between this sonata and Sister Constance’s music in his great opera Les Dialogues des Carmélites. One of the most impressive aspects of McDonough’s playing is her daring use of a very wide dynamic range, sometimes fining her tone down to a breath-catching pianissimo. This is playing of the highest class.

And then that searing performance of the Sextet. I described this work at the beginning of my review as a ‘more mature masterpiece’. That needs some qualification; Poulenc initially wrote it in 1931. But he was dissatisfied, and revised it, indeed virtually rewrote it in 1939, and that is the version we hear today (the original 1931 score is lost).

This is an excellent CD; but a couple of carps I’m afraid. Firstly, on the subject of the Sextet, why on earth are all the six members of the ensemble not credited? We are aware of the presence of Mark Bebbington at the keyboard, and I presume Emer McDonough is playing the flute. But who, for heaven’s sake, are the excellent oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn soloists? Their parts are at least as important of those of Bebbington and McDonough, so to omit them is not only careless but very discourteous.

And could we not have had the texts for Le Bal masqué? Hopefully another page or so in the booklet wouldn’t have broken the bank? Something about a ‘ha’p’orth of tar’ comes to mind, because this is otherwise a fine issue. Although only two of the items – the Flute Sonata and the Sextet – are up there in the top bracket, the whole programme is immensely enjoyable and worth hearing.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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