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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concert champêtre in D for harpsichord and orchestra FP 49(1929)
Concerto in D minor for two pianos and orchestra FP 61(1932)
Concerto in G minor for organ, string orchestra and timpani FP 93(1938)
Aimée van de Wiele, harpsichord; Francis Poulenc, Jacques Février, pianos, Maurice Duruflé, organ
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Pierre Dervaux (Concert champêtre and Concerto in D minor for two pianos), Georges Prêtre (Organ Concerto)
Recorded 13th-21st May 1957 (Concert champêtre) and 22nd-23rd May 1957 (Concerto for two pianos), Salle de la Mutualité, Paris; 21st and 23rd February 1961, L’église Saint-Etienne du Mont, Paris.


There is much great music and music-making here, and also a powerful sense of history, for two of the three works on this CD are performed by the very soloists for whom they were written and who gave their premières. Add to that the presence of the composer, duetting with the great Jacques Février in the Concerto for Two Pianos, and Maurice Duruflé, the original soloist of the Organ Concerto (another one of the most prominent French composers of the 20th century) and you have some idea of the significance of this very special recording.

The Concert champêtre was written for the great Wanda Landowska, and first performed by her in May 1929. It is one of a clutch of pieces that helped bring the harpsichord back into the musical ‘mainstream’, and is a remarkable and highly entertaining work. It has to be said, however, that it is a piece that tends to be more successful in recorded form than live; Poulenc uses a fairly large symphony orchestra, and, without amplification (which rather destroys the whole concept), the solo instrument struggles to be heard. That said, this recording by the Belgian harpsichordist Aimée van de Wiele is superb, full of character and rhythmic zest, and is totally worthy of its noble dedicatee.

The Concerto for Two Pianos is arguably Poulenc’s masterpiece - in the instrumental field at any rate. It has all of his special attributes in ample quantities: the madcap humour, the sudden plunges into dark melancholy, the catchy tunes, and, most of all here, the stylistic allusiveness. One moment we are reminded of Chopin at his most lyrical, the next of Mozart in his Elvira Madigan vein, then (some say) we’re transported to Indonesia with hints of gamelan ... (I’ve never been totally convinced of the last one, but many listeners feel it). Francis lui-même and Jacques Février, who together gave the work its first outing back in 1932, are spell-binding, as is the accompaniment of Dervaux with the Paris Orchestra. All the delightful, quirky details of texture and harmony come through in the most authentic way possible.

Much the same is true of the final item, the great Organ Concerto. Maurice Duruflé gives a massively dramatic, sometimes terrifying performance of this most ‘schizoid’ of all Poulenc’s compositions. One moment we are in a severely ecclesiastical mood, with memories of Bach at his most solemn, the next we are in the hurly-burly of the fairground – all of which reflects perfectly legitimately the varied character of the ‘King of Instruments’. In the organ of the Parisian church of Saint-Etienne du Mont, Duruflé has the perfect instrument, capable of dark resonance and garish reediness in equal measure. There are one or two slightly dodgy moments in the very high violin music, but far from enough to stop this from being anything other than a classic performance.

Pity EMI couldn’t manage to squeeze in the Piano Concerto too, then we would have had all four of the works for soloist and orchestra. But wait a moment, what about the Aubade ….! No, let’s be satisfied and give thanks for what we have here – a collection of Poulenc recordings of the highest possible pedigree.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Great Recordings of the Century series

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