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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1949) [19:01]
Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos & Orchestra (1932) [18:35]
Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings & Timpani (1938) [21:19]
Christian Ihle Hadland (piano), Håvard Gimse (piano)
Kåre Nordstoga (organ)
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Peter Szilvay, Thomas Søndergård
rec. 2011/12, NRK Radio Concert Hall, Oslo; Oslo Cathedral

Three excellent concertos from one of the 20th century’s most appealing composers on one CD, what’s not to like? This is indeed an attractive prospect, and in general reaps most of the rewards you could ask of it. The Piano Concerto is given lively sparkle by soloist Christian Ilhe Hadland, and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra is, while by no means undernourished, compact and flexible, avoiding any kind of overblown effect and keeping a quasi chamber-music feel in many passages. Poulenc’s cinematic colours come across well, and the romance and atmosphere from the strings has just enough vibrato and warmth to keep things together without dripping with sentimentality.

The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra sets off at a rapid pace and is an exciting gallop with everyone just about keeping up. Those magical gamelan sounds from the pianos are beautifully done, and the lyrical second movement has a welcoming sunshine feel. The balance favours the soloists over the orchestra, which means some details are a little recessed here and there, but this is still a decent enough performance.

The Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani is tricky to get right, and it seems I will always have that old EMI original with Maurice Durulflé as soloist (review) as a memory reference which, despite its flaws, is still pretty hard to beat in terms of atmosphere. Kåre Nordstoga is mostly very good, but I feel a lack of space in passages that gain in profundity if they are allowed more repose. There are a couple of moments where the strings sound a bit uncomfortable in terms of ensemble, and the timpani sound a bit remote – the whole thing not quite hanging together as it should. This is certainly the weakest of the three recordings – the acoustic of Oslo Cathedral doesn’t sound particularly ecclesiastical, and with its fine sounding but not particularly distinctive organ I didn’t find the overall result very thrilling.

Somewhat surprisingly there are few single-disc direct competitors for this recording when it comes to this exact programme, with even Charles Dutoit et al on Decca from 2000 not the easiest to find. There are of course numerous alternatives for each work, and I’ve had a re-listen to Louis Lortie with Hélène Mercier and Edward Gardner on the Chandos label (review) for the two piano concertos. These are bigger-boned performances, the BBC Philharmonic delivering a much more symphonic scale but still with plenty of detail in the recording. As far as the organ concerto goes, a solid bet is Peter King’s recording on Regent Records (review) which ticks most of the boxes and has excellent sound quality.

With reasonably good performances and a strong cover design this Lawo disc will look good on any coffee table, will sound fine over your hard-earned Hi-Fi, and have you whistling Poulenc’s themes all day. The documentation doesn’t tell us which conductor is involved in which concerto nor indeed which pianist with which concerto, but beyond this slightly sloppy documentation this is a fun disc to have around, and you can never have too much Poulenc. If really top-notch performances of each concerto are what you seek then it will however pay to shop around.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Marc Rochester

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