The must-have works of Francis Poulenc
By Gary Barton
Francis Poulenc was roughly a contemporary of American composer Aaron Copland, born one year earlier than Copland, in 1899. While Copland came from a relatively poor family and worked hard to earn the money with which he traveled to Paris to learn the rudiments of music from Nadia Boulanger, Poulenc was born there, into a wealthy family in the pharmaceutical business (Rhône-Poulenc).
Poulenc's music, whether comic or tragic, is engaging, attractive and highly tonal (with an occasional atonal Bronx cheer thrown in for comedic purposes). There is both tremendous range and depth to Poulenc's music. It is charming and ingratiating, and I'm very much enjoying the fact that I can't get the melodies out of my head.
Try Poulenc. I think you'll come to enjoy his wit as well as his devotion.
The Essential Poulenc
EMI #569446 (2 CDs)
I found Poulenc’s music by chance, rather than any systematic approach. Where I grew up, the only nearby source of classical recordings was a discount store with a respectable selection. There I bought the old Nonesuch LP of Bach Harpsichord Concertos, with various soloists and The Chamber Orchestra of the Saar, Karl Ristenpart conducting. I fell in love with the logic and intricacy of Bach's writing and wanted more. When I returned to the store, there was no more Bach on harpsichord to be had, so I asked the clerk for other music featuring that instrument. He led me to an Angel LP of the Concert Champêtre for harpsichord and orchestra by Francis Poulenc.
It was very different than the Bach... more episodic, more raucous and, as I was to learn, quite French. It was written at the request of Wanda Landowska, the famed harpsichordist and Bach authority. I learned from the liner notes that Poulenc's first teacher was his mother, an excellent musician taught by Franz Liszt. He later studied piano with a niece of famed composer César Franck, and also the gifted Ricardo Viñes, to whom Poulenc said he "owed everything." Claude Rostand observed that it was from Viñes that Poulenc learned certain "secrets" and a particularly sensuous touch at the keyboard. In fact, Poulenc made a name for himself as a pianist before becoming a composer.
It took me months to finally sample the LP’s flip side: Poulenc's Concerto in d for Two Pianos and Orchestra. Although it is quite 20th century like the Concert Champêtre, the concerto has Baroque qualities, but goes much farther. What made the performance so special was that Poulenc himself was one of the two pianists in the recording, along with his boyhood friend Jacques Février. The two played the public premiere of the Concerto, which to me, then as now, established it as a benchmark recording. The dialogue between the soloists is brilliantly written, and although cast in the traditional three movements, the work is episodic within each movement, with sudden changes of mood—one minute inward and contemplative, flip and saucy the next.
There have been many notable recordings of the Two Piano Concerto, featuring sisters Katia & Marielle Lebeque, for example, but none approach the disc with composer Francis and chum Jacques. For years I lamented that the Poulenc/Février performance of the Two Piano Concerto and Concert Champêtre (with Aimée Van De Wiele, harpsichord) were unavailable on CD. Late one night, however, I found them on a double EMI CD called Orchestral Works (EMI #569446), along with other Poulenc works that had appeared on separate LPs in the 1960's: Les Biches (The Does), complete with the often omitted choral section; some short pieces: Bucolique; Pastourelle, Matelote provençale; even the two little sections that Poulenc contributed to the collective effort of the group of French composers known as Les Six (The Six: Poulenc, Milhaud, Françaix, Duray, Honegger and Taillefaire) called The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower. Here as well are Poulenc's Suite française; The Model Animals (Les Animaux modèles); Sinfonietta; Two Marches and an Interlude.
Aubade And Concertos
Poulenc also wrote a Concerto for a Single Piano & Orchestra, recorded by another close friend, pianist Gabriel Tacchino, with Prêtre conducting (EMI #64714). It is as lighthearted as that for two pianos and could easily be the soundtrack for a Charlie Chaplin film, quickly juxtaposing the tender and sentimental with the freewheeling and slapstick. This CD also contains a fine performance of Poulenc's Aubade ("morning song").
The History of Babar, the Little Elephant
Koch International Classics #7408
Poulenc was visiting relatives in Bordeaux during World War II who successfully prodded him to play some of his music on their piano. (Poulenc, incidentally, was an active member of the Resistance.) His niece tugged at his elbow and said something like, "that's ugly, play this instead," whereupon she placed The History of Babar, the Little Elephant, by Jean de Brunhoff, on the music rack. Poulenc improvised an accompaniment as he read the story aloud, but soon the children in the neighborhood were there, asking to hear it again. Deciding it was more than a one-shot divertissement, Poulenc wrote down, as best he could, the motifs he improvised. His friend Jean Françaix (one of the aforementioned Les Six) later worked it into a setting for narrator and full orchestra.
There are several interesting recordings available in English, Spanish and the original French. One in English features the great soprano Evelyn Lear, but my favorite has The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with JoAnn Faletta conducting and narration by the gifted actress Meryl Streep (Koch International Classics #7408).
Some commentators dismiss the sincerity of Poulenc's religious works, but that criticism is off the mark. EMI's recording of Poulenc's Gloria and Stabat Mater, conducted by Prêtre performances with soprano Barbara Hendricks, The Radio France Choir and The French National Orchestra from 1988 and 1984 respectively. The notes in the booklet for the recording (EMI #749851) discuss Poulenc's Roman Catholic background, wherein his belief seems to ebb following the death of his father in 1917, only to be rekindled in the mid 1930's when a friend and artistic collaborator was killed in an automobile accident. After listening to this deeply beautiful and compelling music, I think there is no question of the depth of his belief.
Organ Concerto, Concert Champêtre, the Piano Concerto, Concerto for Two Pianos, Gloria, plus other works
London #448270 (2 CDs)
To this day I recall the sight of then Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Music Director Thomas Schippers joyfully sliding onto the bench to inaugurate the CSO's Baldwin Multi Wave Form Organ with this glorious work by Poulenc. That taped performance rests in a dusty archive, but there are several on CD that are quite good, particularly London/Decca 448270, a 2-CD set, which the budget shopper might want to consider. Spread out over the two discs are the Organ Concerto, the Concert Champêtre, the Piano Concerto, Concerto for Two Pianos, Sonata for 2 Pianos & Poulenc's Gloria (conducted by Jesús López-Cobos). Soloists include Pascal Rogé and the famed duo pianists Bracha Eden & Alexander Tamir.
One reason Poulenc’s Concert Champêtre and Two Piano Concerto are special is the work of conductor Georges Prêtre leading the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire (Paris Conservatory Orchestra).
Opera lovers best know Georges Prêtre. He studied at the Paris Conservatory and acquired a broad repertory at respected opera houses in France before being hired by the Paris Opéra Comique at the age of only 32, and by Paris' Grand Opera just a few years later. Prêtre was the preferred conductor of the great soprano Maria Callas, who often had him engaged to accompany her as conductor with orchestras around the world. Prêtre was also selected to conduct the last performance at the "Old Met" in New York City, and the first performance at the "New Met" at its Grand Opening Gala.
I asked my friend François Rabbath, who played double bass in the Grand Opera Orchestra in Paris for decades, what made Prêtre so favored by singers. François told me in a phone conversation that it was because Prêtre knew how to support and accompany a vocal or instrumental soloist with perfect feeling. His style is not flamboyant, his gestures economical, but he somehow manages to communicate to the orchestra the feeling to perfectly suit the soloist at hand. Prêtre received the Victoire de la Musique Classique Award as the Best Conductor of the Year in 1997, in addition to high-ranking awards from France, Italy, Austria and Germany. Prêtre is honorary conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra.
Georges Prêtre was not only suited for a supporting role, however. To hear
him in an all-orchestral setting, try this Hänssler CD containing Ravel's Daphnis
et Chloe Suite No. 2 and La Valse, as well as Bizet’s Symphony
in C (Hänssler #93013).
All of the above explains why Poulenc chose Prêtre to conduct his works on so many different recordings. Poulenc was well aware of the self-effacement necessary for an accompanist because of his work as a pianist. He chose Prêtre because he trusted him to evoke from the orchestra precisely what he had in mind.