ABC Classics 481 1835
Reviewed by John Weretka, September 1st, 2015
Although Francis Poulenc enjoyed a lively career as a pianist, his piano music has to some extent been eclipsed by his operas Les dialogues des Carmélites and La voix humaine, orchestral works such as Les biches and certain of his choral works. Music for his own instrument occupied him reasonably intensely until about the age of 40, but thinned out during the 1940s and 1950s. Poulenc himself felt ambivalent about his piano output: his Trois mouvements perpétuels, among the best known of his piano works now, he thought merely ‘tolerable’; the very early Napoli he condemned without reservation.
Antony Gray does lovers of Poulenc’s piano music an enormous service in bringing together all the music for solo piano in this 5-CD set. Gray records for the first time nine works, including Poulenc’s transcriptions of sonatas he wrote for other instrumental combinations (the sonatas for two clarinets, for clarinet and bassoon and for horn, trumpet and trombone) as well as his transcription of Mozart’s Musikalischer Spaß. These are joined by works that have now won generations of admirers — the Trois mouvements perpétuels (the first of which is played obsessively by the nervous Farley Granger in Hitchcock’s Rope), the Nocturnes and the Novellettes among them.
Gray’s determination to bring all of Poulenc’s solo piano music to recording offers an unprecedented chance not just to consider Poulenc’s music on its own merits but also to assess a single artist’s meditation on the work of a single composer. Poulenc, we learn — or perhaps are reminded — was many things. As a composer strongly rooted in the historical tradition from which he saw himself emerging, Poulenc’s mania for le temps perdu led him towards deep engagement with the composers and styles of the past. This engagement often yields rich dividends. The seven-movement Suite Française and the isolated Bourrée, au Pavillon d’Auvergne and Française, d’après Claude Gervaise, inspired by the rediscovery of the clavecinistes of the eighteenth-century and by French Renaissance music, read as precious texts of the kind of nationalistic discourse that deeply affected figures as widely separated as D’Indy, Saint-Saëns and Ravel. Poulenc’s limitations are revealed in works like this too: somehow his engagement with these traditions fails to transcend the historical specificity of his music, rooting them in their time and place more readily than comparable works such as Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin. Poulenc’s evocations of the works of others are also something of a mixed bunch. His Improvisation in E flat minor: Hommage à Schubert, offered to a composer about whom Poulenc felt strongly, is a frankly rather crass imitation of Schubert; his Nocturnes, on the other hand, take up from where Chopin left off and the ‘collection’ (if that is what it really is) comprises finely etched sketches of contrasting complexion. Poulenc’s transcription of Ein musikalischer Spaß manages to be respectful of Mozart and utterly Poulenc at the same time. Poulenc’s taste for what he termed ‘adorable bad music’ also rears its (dare I say ugly?) head in works such as Napoli (the work Poulenc himself disowned) and in certain movements of the Histoire de Barbar and Lex animaux modèles. Something like Poulenc’s own voice can also be heard in works such as the first of the Deux Novellettes and the Improvisation: Hommage à Edith Piaf, where a lively and individual sense of keyboard writing, harmony and melody meet.
It would be hard to sum up in a few words the magisterial achievement of Antony Gray in realising Poulenc’s vision fully. One never gets the sense that he is embarrassed by the gaucheries of some of Poulenc’s music or that he thinks that Poulenc’s forays into claveciniste writing are masks Poulenc puts on in a post-modern fashion when the moment warrants it. Rather, we get exactly what the music calls for. Gray is pearlescent, arch and silken in the Scriabin-esque ‘Pastorale’ from the very early Trois pièces or in the second of the Trois pastorales, bombastic and symphonic in works such as ‘Le lion amoureux’ from Les animaux modèles, brittle in an Alkan way in works such as the first of the Deux intermezzi, naïve in works such as the Villanelle pour pipeau et piano. In music of such widely divergent quality, this commitment itself is noteworthy. That Gray offers such uncompromising fidelity to the complete vision of Poulenc is the highest kind of praise that can be offered.