Poulenc: Piano Concertos, Aubade

Performed by Louis Lortie, Hélène Mercier (piano) and the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Edward Gardner.

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COMPOSERS: Poulenc
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Poulenc: Piano Concertos, Aubade
WORKS: Piano Concerto; Concerto for two pianos in D minor*; Aubade; Sonata for piano four hands*; Elégie*; L’embarquement pour Cythère*
PERFORMER: Louis Lortie, *Hélène Mercier (piano); BBC Philharmonic/Edward Gardner
CATALOGUE NO: Chandos CHAN 10875

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This delightful yet stylistically rather haphazard programme may confirm the prejudice of those who think Poulenc is little more than a hotchpotch of various influences. Yet even when this is fully exemplified in his Concerto for Two Pianos (1932) – which encompasses music hall, Javanese gamelan and Mozart – Poulenc somehow melds these disparate sources into his own distinctive style. Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier perform it with great panache, also capturing the work’s more reflective qualities, with Edward Gardner and the BBC Philharmonic providing by turns zestful and sensitive accompaniment. Lortie is just as characterful in the Piano Concerto (1949), which Poulenc himself performed on tour in the States aged 50. However Gardner, by encouraging the use of string portamento even in the first movement’s quasi-liturgical episode, has the violins seductively swoop as they allude to Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge Noire – effectively reclothing Poulenc’s demure nuns in sexy lingerie: though a palpable mischaracteristion, this may still offer a guilty pleasure to even Poulenc purists.

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Poulenc’s more acerbic side appears in his early Sonata for piano duet (1918, shades of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), and even more pointedly in Aubade (1929), a parable told in pugnacious music for piano and 18 instruments about the goddess Diana, thwarted in love and fated to resume hunting – ‘carrying the bow that was as tedious to her as my piano was at that time to me’ Poulenc confessed. Most affecting, though, is his meltingly seductive Élégie for two pianos, written in 1959. The smooth alternation of chords between the two players, and their touchingly tactful treatment of the splintered harmonies with which it ends testify to Lortie and Mercier’s remarkable rapport, having been duet partners since their teens. Daniel Jaffé