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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Piano Concerto in C sharp minor [18:37]
Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani in G minor [22:25]
Stabat Mater [30:56]
Alexandre Tharaud (piano), James O’Donnell (organ), Kate Royal (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. live, 23 October 2013 (Piano & Stabat Mater), 26 March 2014 (Organ), Royal Festival Hall, London
LPO LPO0108 [72:24]

With the Piano and Organ concertos each lasting around 20 minutes, the logical coupling for a CD would be the similarly-proportioned Concerto for Two Pianos or the marginally longer Concert Champêtre for harpsichord and orchestra. But while that might make sense on paper, practicalities (i.e. the availability of recordings taken from recent live performances by the London Philharmonic) have dictated that the third item is the choral Stabat Mater. Musically this might not make much sense (beyond the fact that all three works are by Poulenc) but sense flies out of the window when it comes to the sheer listening pleasure of this disc. For each of these is a pretty special performance and to have them preserved in one place is a huge bonus to the recorded legacy of one of the 20th century’s most distinctive composers.

The Piano Concerto of 1949 has often come in for a bad press with its lavish sound world, which feels more akin to fin-de-siècle Paris than the austerity of the post-war years, and its blatant nods towards its intended American audience – it was composed for Poulenc’s second concert tour of the USA. The most blatant of these Americanisms is the sudden appearance in the final movement of the popular song “Swanee River”, something which has often troubled performers who find it slightly embarrassing. Anthony Burton’s programme notes try to dilute its impact by suggesting that it could be seen as “the closing notes of the French folk song ‘A la Claire fontaine’.” But he need not worry. Alexandre Tharaud is more than happy to project Poulenc’s gesture of gratitude to the American public with all the razzmatazz of a Hollywood spectacular, surrounding the theme’s appearance with an unashamed outburst of glittering fingerwork and in no way trying to disguise the theme as something other than what it is.

Here we have a vivacious, bubbling account of the Piano Concerto, Yannick Nézet-Séguin happily colluding with Tharaud in showcasing the Concerto’s gloriously Technicolor array of orchestral effects, while for his part Tharaud adds sparkle and glitter in the finest Hollywood traditions and lays on thickly the emotional gestures, be they of the melodramatic, the saccharine or the ersatz-sincere variety. Switching from fast to slow, from loud to soft, from the angular to the caressing, this determination to reveal the Concerto as a lavish display of orchestral and pianistic effects rather than something of a more serious vein in the Mozart tradition (Burton, quite rightly, suggests that one of the last movement themes sounds “like updated Mozart”) results in a scintillating performance. If the way in which they close the first movement is not a typical bit of Hollywood showmanship, I don’t know what is. They certainly give the full Hollywood treatment to the pseudo-Rachmaninov theme which opens the sentimental Second movement. This is a most invigorating and enervating recording of the Concerto.

With the Organ Concerto we have here one of the best recordings of recent years – and that’s saying something considering just how many recordings there have been recently; it seems that just about every building with an organ and which can accommodate a moderately-sized orchestra has had the microphones in to record some star organist in the work. What I like particularly about James O’Donnell’s performance (which has been in the catalogues since 2014 on another LPO CD) is his willingness to brush aside the Duruflé interventions which most other organists seem to regard as essential.

To put some historical context to this, Poulenc wrote the Concerto in the late 1930s for the American washing machine and vacuum cleaner heiress, Princess Edmond de Polignac and her house organ. He was well out of his depth in writing for the instrument, especially since the Concerto grew rather beyond its original dimensions, and ended up being performed not in the Princess’s private Parisian salon but in the larger space of the city’s Salle Gaveau. The soloist was the eminent Parisian organist/composer Maurice Duruflé, and it was his registrations for that organ and that performance that Poulenc included when the score was published. Duruflé went on to record the Concerto, and such iconic status did his recording attain (still in the catalogues now on the Warner Classics’ label), that ever since then his registrations have been regarded as equally integral to the performance of the work as Poulenc’s own notes. O’Donnell has kept to the general spirit of Duruflé’s ideas (after all Poulenc clearly approved of them) but has made use of the Royal Festival Hall organ’s distinctive character to create a performance which sounds not just truly Poulencian, but utterly idiomatic on the organ. In fact, I have to confess that I much prefer O’Donnell’s approach, which moves away from the focus on distinctive solo stops which characterises Duruflé’s, and goes more for an integrated, almost churchy sound, which highlights more the coordination between organ and orchestra and less the sense that the Concerto features two competing orchestras.

Again Nézet-Séguin is a ready and willing accomplice, moulding the LPO around O’Donnell’s graceful playing, and measuring the dynamic shading so that there is always impeccable balance between the two. There is no shortage of excitement or thrills, nor of anguish and passion, but for an integrated, well rounded performance which treats this more as a true concerto and less a showpiece for organ, I don’t think there is anything better on the market right now.

If in the concertos we have had Poulenc the showman, with the Stabat Mater we have Poulenc the sincere and devout Catholic. He did once say that he put “the best and most genuine part of myself into my sacred music”, and this setting of what is perhaps the most intense and deeply moving of all Roman Catholic texts, fully bears out his statement. From the almost whispered bass choral entry, above steadily treading cellos and basses, sounding like monks processing through the dark recesses of an ancient monastery, through the floating entry of the upper voices drifting angel-like into the picture, to the shimmering final statement of “filius”, fading away into the hazy distance, it is clear from the very first chorus that this is going to be a performance aiming more for dramatic impact than prayerful sincerity. Nézet-Séguin perfectly balances Poulenc’s austere religious musical language with his bouts of sensuous harmonic pleasure. The bitter, aggressive edge to the “Cujus animam”, the profound, restrained chorale-like statement of the “O quam tristis” suddenly evolving into a warm, ravishing glow of opulent sound replete with fluttering harp glissandi, and the enchanting pastoral mood of the “Quae moerebat”, all are conveyed with an almost pictorial vividness. The LPO Choir responds with wonderful breadth of tone and a flexibility of approach every bit as finessed as the orchestra which supports them so superbly.

Kate Royal has the kind of rich tone replete with luxuriant vibrato which might seem more at home in the opera house than in the church, and certainly it does not really fit with the image of an anguished mother watching the long drawn-out and cruel death of her son on the cross. She certainly has the power and range to cope with Poulenc’s often quite operatic writing, but this is the wrong voice for this music. While I very much admire the technical prowess she possesses, the very warmth of her voice sits uneasily alongside a performance which brings out so vividly the emotional intensity of Poulenc’s passionate approach to this immensely moving text.

Marc Rochester

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