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CLASSICAL  April 2005

CLASSICAL April 2005

Subject:

Poulenc Orchestral Works

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 18 Apr 2005 08:16:57 -0500

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    Francis Poulenc
    Orchestral Works

*  Les Biches Suite
*  Les Animaux modeles Suite
*  Matelote provencale
*  Pastourelle
*  Valse
*  Discours du general & La Beigneuse de Trouville
*  Aubade
*  Satie (orch. Poulenc): Deux Preludes posthumes et une Gnossienne

Pascal Roge (piano), Orchestre National de France/Charles Dutoit
London 289 452937-2 Total time: 78:32

Summary for the Busy Executive: French kisses.

In the Twenties and Thirties, if you had bet on the Next Great French
Composer, you probably wouldn't have put your money on Poulenc, more
likely on Milhaud or Honegger.  However, events often confound expectations.
Most critics now consider Poulenc the major French composer between Ravel
and Boulez, although here and there one finds a bit of condescension
toward him - a holdover of attitudes from the Twenties and Thirties.

For me, Poulenc counts as one of the great figures of the Twentieth
Century in any art, not just music.  His work speaks to the great range
of human experience - from the silly to the profound.  Yet, I doubt most
listeners share my view.  He certainly doesn't hit all the marks of the
Great Composer.  He had very little talent for musical architecture,
for example.  He typically composes in short bursts, probably stringing
together short improvisations.  You won't see a symphony or a string
quartet in his catalogue, and his operas are decidedly weird: a vaudeville,
a dramatic monologue, and a series of scenes on a very Catholic subject.
The last - Dialogues des Carmelites - has nevertheless held the stage.
But his faults don't count for much in the face of his considerable
virtues: a melodist with a terrific sense of poetry and harmony.  His
works overflow with melodies - lots of them, all gorgeous, individual,
and memorable, and, like Stravinsky's music, with the sense of every
note in its perfect place.  Despite his avoidance of the symphony, he
nevertheless succeeded in spades with the orchestral forms of concerto
and ballet.

This CD brings together mainly his ballet music.  Matelote provencale,
Discours du general, La Beigneuse de Trouville, Pastourelle, and Valse
all come from collaborative works: La guirlande de Campra and Le maries
de la tour Eiffel (both essentially with other members of Les Six) and
L' eventail de Jeanne (with a whole slew of Modern French composers,
including Ravel and members of Les Six).  All these pieces exude an
innocent, even at times wacky, charm, with the L' eventail Pastourelle
- a superb melody - hinting at great depths.

Poulenc scored one of his first major hits with the ballet Le Biches
(roughly, "the flirts").  It comes across as a wonderful combo of
neoclassical Stravinsky and Maurice Chevalier.  Again, the listener gets
hit with one great melody after another, perfectly harmonized.  Nevertheless,
the ballet shows Poulenc in the process of leaving the influence of those
Satie works that encourage him to cut up.  There's still a lot of fun
in the ballet, but it's earthier, less surreal than what one normally
gets in Satie (and even in Poulenc's own Rapsodie negre).  As far as I
know, only two recordings of the complete ballet have appeared, while
one can choose from a modest stack for the suite.  Basically, the suite
omits the movements with chorus.  I prefer the complete to the suite,
although the suite is fine in itself.  George Pretre always conducted
Poulenc with great depth and understanding and I'd recommend his 2-CD
set on EMI 56946.  The program duplicates much of the material on the
present CD, but I find those performances a great deal closer to my image
of the composer.

The Aubade more or less caps Poulenc's Twenties neoclassicism.  This
little ballet, about the goddess Diana, requires very small forces -
solo piano and thirteen instruments - and Poulenc first presented it
in a private home, a very large private home (shades of the court of
Esterhazy!).  Despite its comparatively modest sound, Aubade's quieter
passages give us a glimpse of Poulenc on his way to his rediscovery of
Catholicism.  The Stravinskian elements are in stronger evidence here,
apparently associated with greater seriousness, but no one mistakes
Stravinsky for Poulenc.  Indeed, few composers are as immediately
identifiable as those two.  Poulenc takes certain very general ideas
from Stravinsky and bends them to his own personality.

The greater seriousness increases in Les Animales modeles, written in
1942 during the Occupation.  For my money, this counts as one of Poulenc's
finest works, but it hasn't had the play of Les Biches, for sure.  It
stands fairly close to Poulenc's embrace of Catholicism and to the Organ
Concerto of 1939.  Nevertheless, there's very little of Poulenc's religious
musical riffing in it.  Instead, one hears a great sadness and a great
tenderness as well, very much like Ravel's in the quieter parts of Ma
Mere l'Oye.  The Occupation seems to have spurred Poulenc to a fierce
identification with and idealization of France's golden past: Montaigne,
La Fontaine, Moliere, and so on.  You never could mistake Poulenc's art
as anything other than French, but it had always been a natural,
unselfconscious part of him.  Here, he takes it on directly and with
forethought.  The ballet in a sense transcends its plot - a dramatization
of several of La Fontaine's fables.  One doesn't meditate on the lessons
of human nature as taught by La Fontaine, but upon what it means to be
a good human being.  "La Mort et le bucheron" (Death and the woodman),
for example, tells of a woodcutter's meeting in the forest with a beautiful
court lady, who turns out to be Death.  The music, however, points us
in a slightly different direction: a lament for the true and the beautiful
and for one's native country.  The ballet isn't entirely that somber.
"Les deux coqs" (the two roosters) gives us a bit of the old kicking up
of the heels from Les Biches.  Still, the humor has become warmer, more
humane, less a matter of effervescent hi-jinks.  Very few have appreciated
this ballet at anything like its true worth, beginning with Poulenc's
sometime teacher, Charles Koechlin, who in general preferred the
"guttersnipe" Poulenc to the "serious" one.  For me, when I think
of the essence of Poulenc, I immediately think of this ballet.

Charles Dutoit has recently given us a string of recordings as air-borne
as a concrete balloon.  His recent CD of Ravel, Honegger, and Francaix
piano concerti had very little grace and a kind of logy stumble-through.
This CD shows him with the virtues one normally associates with him -
lightness, sparkle, clarity. If it weren't for the fact that the Pretre
CD set is currently available at mid-price, I'd give this an unqualified
recommendation.  However, I think you will do better with the Pretre.
Nevertheless, if price is a consideration and you want only one CD,
Dutoit offers a reasonable alternative.

Steve Schwartz

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