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CD Review

Francis Poulenc

Orchestral Works

  • Les Biches Suite
  • Les Animaux modèles Suite
  • Matelote provençale
  • Pastourelle
  • Valse
  • Discours du général & La Beigneuse de Trouville
  • Aubade
  • Satie (orch. Poulenc): Deux Préludes posthumes et une Gnossienne
Pascal Rogé, piano
Orchestre National de France/Charles Dutoit
London 452937-2 78:32
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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 Carmélites – 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 provençale, Discours du général, La Beigneuse de Trouville, Pastourelle, and Valse all come from collaborative works: La guirlande de Campra and Le mariés de la tour Eiffel (both essentially with other members of Les Six) and L' éventail 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' éventail 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 nègre). 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 Prêtre 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 Esterházy!). 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 modéles, 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 Mère l'Oye. The Occupation seems to have spurred Poulenc to a fierce identification with and idealization of France's golden past: Montaigne, La Fontaine, Molière, 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 bûcheron" (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 Françaix 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 Prêtre CD set is currently available at mid-price, I'd give this an unqualified recommendation. However, I think you will do better with the Prêtre. Nevertheless, if price is a consideration and you want only one CD, Dutoit offers a reasonable alternative.

Copyright © 2005, Steve Schwartz