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Poulenc's legendary skills as a pianist—cultivating a style combining idiosyncratic colour and immaculate clarity—imbue his compositions for the instrument. The solo piano miniatures are distillations of perfection and receive diaphanous performances from Lucille Chung. An extended coda to this new album adds duo partner (and husband) Alessio Bax to the mix for the spirited works for four hands.
Poulenc was himself a skilled pianist, cultivating a style of playing characterized by colorfulness, clarity, and, more specifically notable, sensitive use of the sustain pedal. All of these come to bear in his writing for the instrument. As much as Poulenc’s close understanding of the piano inevitably aided him, it seems also to have somewhat confounded him and complicated his approach to it as a composer. 'Many of my pieces have failed', he once confessed, 'because I know too well how to write for the piano … as soon as I begin writing piano accompaniments in my songs, I begin to innovate. Similarly, my piano writing with orchestra or chamber ensemble is of a different order. It is the solo piano that somehow escapes me. With it I am a victim of false pretences.'
He was equally frank in assessing specific works. 'I tolerate the Mouvements perpétuels, my old Suite en ut, and the Trois pièces. I like very much my two collections of Improvisations, an Intermezzo in A flat, and certain Nocturnes. I condemn Napoli and the Soirées de Nazelles without reprieve.'
The lion’s share of Poulenc’s oeuvre for the piano comprises miniatures—the singular delectability of his language found a more natural home in bonbons than in larger, heavier courses—and the Improvisations are among these: fifteen short works, none lasting more than three and a half minutes, and most not even half that length. They seem, on cursory listening, mere ephemera—an impression that echoes popular criticism in Poulenc’s day that, among the young Parisian rabble-rousers known as Les Six, Poulenc was to be taken the least seriously, an amateur next to the more sophisticated Honegger and Milhaud. But just as historical perspective has recognized the startling originality of Poulenc’s voice, so does closer examination of the Improvisations reveal their impeccable technique and graceful touch, both on the part of the composer and in their demands of the performer. And however one regards them, they are undeniably irresistible works, grander aspirations be damned.
The first six Improvisations date from 1932. The first, in B minor, starts off as an impish Presto ritmico with volatile sixteenth-note gestures played très sec. (Indeed, the set as a whole unapologetically eschews the lush Romantic textures of, say, Brahms’s Intermezzi.) The fluidity with which this rakish music passes into the legato B section is itself a mark of mischief. The disarming tenderness of the second Improvisation, in A flat major, shows another side of Poulenc—though the devil on his left shoulder has the last word, ending the piece with a non sequitur in C major. Such sly harmonic winks recur throughout the set. The fifth—dedicated to Georges Auric, one of Poulenc’s conspirators among Les Six—is ostensibly set in a minor, but richly colored with twisting chromatic lines.
The frank melodic sensibility of Improvisation No 7, composed in 1933, contains a whisper of Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte. The following three of the set were completed the following year. No 9 in D major reflects the playfulness of much of Poulenc’s chamber music. No 10 bears the subtitle 'Éloge des gammes'. After a sly opening section, dominated by a recurring chromatic scale, this Improvisation turns, without warning, into one of the most ravishingly textured of the set, surrounding lyrical melodies with a luxuriously flowing sixteenth-note accompaniment.
Poulenc composed Improvisations Nos 11 and 12 in 1941. The latter, 'Hommage à Schubert', is an affable waltz. This music honors the Schubert of the drawing room Schubertiades—the composer of lieder and keyboard miniatures, designed to delight intimate gatherings of friends rather than the majestic Schubert of the 'Great' C major Symphony, or the profound Schubert of Winterreise.
Improvisation No 13 in A minor, composed in 1958, is a seductive number, owing largely to une beaucoup de pédale, setting the darkly mysterious melody and sultry harmony in a smoky film noir. The final Improvisation is Poulenc’s 'Hommage à Edith Piaf', and likewise has a dusky quality, befitting the cabaret chanteuse.
Poulenc’s three Novelettes constitute another collection of miniatures. The first, in C major, composed in 1927, is a thing of beguiling sincerity, devoid of the mischief that pervades the Improvisations. By contrast, the spirited second Novelette in B flat major (1928), Très rapide et rythmé, is rife with circus charm. Poulenc returned to the form three decades later to compose his Novelette sur un thème de Manuel de Falla. Said theme comes from Falla’s El amor brujo: presented at the outset in the right hand melody, Andantino tranquillo, this could serve easily as the love theme for a Golden Age Hollywood romance.
The Sonata for four hands, composed in 1918 (subsequently revised in 1939) can likewise be classified as a miniature, despite its 'sonata' tag. Comprising three movements and lasting under six minutes in total, it fits, at best, a quite liberal definition of a sonata in the classical sense; more likely, Poulenc gave it this designation with tongue ensconced firmly in cheek. The Sonata’s rambunctious Prélude, naïve and sentimental Rustique, and Final bounding with joie de vivre betray the influence of Stravinsky, Satie, and even Emmanuel Chabrier. (Stravinsky nurtured the work in more ways than one. 'It was Stravinsky who got me published in London by Chester, my first publisher', Poulenc recounted, 'the publisher … of the Sonata for two clarinets, of my Duet Sonata; all those little beginner’s works, rather faltering, were published thanks to the kindness of Stravinsky, who was very much a father to me.') Like much of the four-hand repertoire, the Sonata requires deft coordination and navigation of the keyboard between the two players. Poulenc is rumored to have composed the work as an excuse to wrap fingers with a certain prepossessing student.
The final miniature on this recording is L’embarquement pour Cythère for two pianos (1951). The music for this brisk vignette comes from Poulenc’s film score to the French comedy Le voyage en Amérique. The title is taken from a Watteau painting, in which Cupid beckons a coterie of young lovers to Cythera, the island of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love. Poulenc’s music is fittingly bright and optimistic.
The Concerto for two pianos in D minor, composed in the summer of 1932, ranks alongside the Concerto for organ, strings, and timpani (1938) as Poulenc’s finest works in the arena of orchestral music. (The Concerto appears on the present recording in the composer’s own reduction for two pianos, sans orchestra.) Poulenc—whom we have already established as a candid self-critic—recognized what he had accomplished upon the work’s completion; he wrote to a friend, 'You will see what an enormous step forward it is from my previous work and that I am really entering my great period'. Poulenc premiered the Concerto in September 1932 with pianist and childhood friend Jacques Février, at the Fifth International Music Festival in Venice, with the La Scala Orchestra, conducted by Désire Defauw.
The Concerto betrays various influences. The composer acknowledged as much in a letter to the composer Igor Markevitch: 'Would you like to know what I had on my piano during the two months gestation of the Concerto? The concertos of Mozart, those of Liszt, that of Ravel, and your Partita.' Along with these, the sound of Balinese gamelan, which Poulenc had encountered at the 1931 Exposition Coloniale de Paris, was evidently in the composer’s ear. Following its declamatory opening chords, the first movement launches into a motoric sixteenth-note passage, fortissimo, très brillant, which evokes gamelan’s exotic harmonies. The tempo soon picks up, conjuring images of leaping aerialists. Later, the music slows to a romantic lugubriousness—maudlin, perhaps, in the hands of another composer, but cut along Poulenc’s razor-sharp wit, such schmaltz is perfectly self-aware, and gleefully so. Gamelan harmonies surface again near the movement’s end, now très calme.
'In the Larghetto of this Concerto', Poulenc wrote, 'I permitted myself, for the first theme, to return to Mozart, because I have a fondness for the melodic line and I prefer Mozart to all other musicians. If the movement begins alla Mozart, it quickly diverges at the entrance of the second piano, toward a style that was familiar to me at the time.' The soft lullaby that begins the Larghetto might specifically call the mind the Romance from Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K466. As the music becomes more turbulent, it nevertheless gives little impression of turmoil befalling the idyllic scene; rather, it suggests only a distant threat—perhaps the dark turn in a fairy tale, told in the nursery before bedtime, which will effortlessly find its way to a serene conclusion.
The Concerto’s vivacious Allegro molto finale is paced by a fleet repartee between the two pianists. The music passes through various episodes of contrasting character, but Poulenc’s irrepressibly devilish humor prevails throughout. A brief remembrance of the first movement’s gamelan passage colors the final moments of this fetching Concerto.
Patrick Castillo © 2016
Although Poulenc clearly has no Korean connections, his music thrives in the dichotomy of the sacred and profane, spirituality and light-heartedness, often switching from one to the other quickly and seamlessly while at the same time retaining an unmistakably French idiom and a clarity that speaks directly to everyone’s heart.
The two sides of Poulenc’s music are startlingly obvious, yet they have to be taken as a whole, because together they make a stronger statement. His music, always identifiable yet original, is so beautifully crafted that it seems to flow naturally from the composer’s mind to our ears. Music writer Jessica Duchen beautifully pinpoints Poulenc as “a fizzing, bubbling mass of Gallic energy who can move you to both laughter and tears within seconds. His language speaks clearly, directly and humanely to every generation.”
Making this album was a dream come true. From the irresistible charm of the 15 Improvisations to the irrepressible bursts of energy in the Concerto for two pianos, the range of Poulenc’s music and beauty had a wonderfully infectious effect for everyone involved in this project!
Lucille Chung © 2016