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Neither was true of his sociable personality, but his music tends to the extremes that he was otherwise reluctant to discuss. His next work, for example, was the Stabat Mater, and in describing the startling leap of style from one to the other to a friend, he wrote that ‘I am as sincere in my faith, without any messianic screamings, as I am in my Parisian sexuality … My musical tone is spontaneous, and in any case, I think truly personal.’ As with the music of Ibert, so Poulenc at his most capricious either repels those allergic to its short attention spans, or attracts others who find relief in music that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The plaintive, singing subject of the first movement is subject to various treatments, some of them more dignified than others, though the procession from song to march to keyboard lionism to voluptuous romanticism may remind you of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody, and the theme itself is not unlike one from the same composer’s Third Piano Concerto.
As though Poulenc had tired of the theme, however, the orchestra skitters away with a neoclassical Minuet, itself succeeded before too long by another romantic melody, horns to the fore. At the centre of the movement is an aspiring sigh on the strings, a tiny prequel to his greatest work, the opera Dialogues of the Carmelites. It ushers in a slow section, serene and contemplative, even liturgical with its block chords. When Poulenc is in this mood, however, nothing can last for long, and the wild parade continues.
The second-movement Andante begins with the rhythm of a heartbeat. The finale is in the popular Nogent-style which Poulenc had made his own 30 years previously. The piano collaborates with the orchestra, rather than playing an adversarial role as the organ does in its concerto. Le Figaro probably got it right: ‘Certainly it isn’t a concerto at all but a little picture of manners, done up by a minor master.’
Rachmaninov returns with the gentle theme of the slow movement and its heartbeat accompaniment, though the subsequent development naturally scorns any heady eruptions of emotion: when it came to Russian music, Poulenc (and his French contemporaries) held the ‘objective’ coolness of Stravinsky as a model of restraint. Instead, a quicker central section dispels the tension and gives an unlikely context to the soloist’s grandiose fulmination. The finale is perhaps the most typical of Poulenc, with its majorminor scamper, its Mozartian good humour in instrumental conversation and diffident send-off.
from notes by Peter Quantrill © 2011