Poulenc
15 Improvisations, FP63, FP113, FP170, FP176
3 Novelettes, FP47, FP173
Sonata for Four Hands, FP8*
L'embarquement pour Cythère, FP150*
Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos, FP61 [performed in the composer’s reduction]*
Lucille Chung (piano) & *Alessio Bax (piano)

Recorded 23-27 January 2015, Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Saxmundham, England
CD No: SIGNUM CLASSICS
SIGCD455
Duration: 62 minutes
Reviewed: June 2016

A homage to the Parisian who liked to think of himself as “the musician of Apollinaire and Éluard”, this elegantly conceived microcosm of Francis Poulenc's piano oeuvre spotlights his wit and genius at its most pertinent and perfumed.

Time was when it used to be fashionable to dismiss him as a neo-classicist, a musical lightweight, “an erotic petit maître”. This collection, spanning more than forty years, from 1918 to 1959, shows the absurdity of such simplification. Here is a regally bred side of diatonic 20th-century life, balanced, jewelled and set with all the complexity, assurance and discernment of a Marchak artisan along the Rue de la Paix. Poulenc was happy to believe there was “room for new music which doesn’t mind using other people’s chords”.

In these Carnival-esque aphorisms, intimacies and occasionally broader landscapes (the Double Concerto, here minus the orchestra) you'll meet with characters from history and cameos of friends of the hour, each caught and shadowed with the ease of a throwaway line, “a cigar in your mouth and a glass of cognac on the piano” – Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, Chabrier, Satie, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Piaf. Even Paganini/Liszt take a bow (‘La chasse’, the ninth violin Caprice, in the Second Improvisation, 1932). For the ultimate in classical pastiche and encore charm, L'embarquement pour Cythère (1951), a Watteau-titled valse-musette from the score Poulenc wrote for Henri Lavorel's film comedy Le voyage en Amérique, sets the bar high.

One could write much about these performances – their imagination, togetherness, oily legato, phrasing, staccatissimi très sec, rhythmic urgency, placed cadences, precision attacks, sensuous sonorities, élan … but, to misquote the composer, it's better to love than analyse them. They're glorious – period. In the Rogé tradition, with a tonal palette ultra-coloured and sophisticated, Lucille Chung, winner of the 1989 Stravinsky Competition, second in the 1992 Montreal, feels the music with grace and strength, her 'placed' quicker numbers noticeably less frenetic than Tacchino or Trpčeski (both prone to headstrong coarseness). In the duet/duo material, her husband, Alessio Bax, winner of Leeds in 2000, matches her note for note, sigh for sigh: physical, impeccable, thrilling music-making.

Exact and atmospheric – and essentially clean, save some studio noise at the end of the Fourth Improvisation (1:24) causing the final middle-C to seem like an outtake (it isn't) – Anna Barry's production is exemplary. Likewise, Mike Hatch's engineering: you expect the gold standard from him, and he does not disappoint, providing a pedigree soundworld that has space, clarity and atmosphere. The (uncredited) pianos are matched and voiced to perfection – bright in the top (but not too glassy), warmly glowing in the middle, richly grounded in the bass, with crisp repetition actions. They must have been a joy to play. A demonstration release.

 

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