About this Recording
8.553929 - POULENC: Piano Music, Vol. 1

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Piano Music, Volume 1

Francis Poulenc wrote music that is witty, satirical, whimsical, and sometimes, even, impudent. His musical structures are light and graceful, his textures are fragile, and his technical assurance is rock-solid. In everything he ever wrote, Poulenc exhibited extraordinary skill, yet what we bear is deceptively simple, brief and clear. Whether it is a work of tender sentiments or of intense emotions, his musical smile was always infectiously charming.

Born in 1899 in Paris, Poulenc wrote his first piano compositions in early 1917. In 1919 the concert audiences heard his three Mouvements Perpetuels and Poulenc became a household name almost overnight. He then joined a group of French composers (along with Milhaud, Durey, Auric, Honegger and Tailleferre) called Les Six. In 1924 Sergey Dyagilev commissioned Poulenc to write a score for the Ballets Russes, and the result was Les Riches (‘The Does’). The ballet was a great success. One critic wrote: "The Poulenc score is exquisite… With its ironic and slightly rakish twists, its thoroughly traditional elegance of thought, it goes straight to the point, its one aim being to bring delight".

Many works followed – the Concert Champêtre, the Concerto for two piano, and orchestra, the Mass in G major, songs, chamber music and, of course, more piano pieces. During World War II, Poulenc was an active member of the French Resistance movement. Works from these years include the poignant Violin Sonata dedicated to the memory of Federico Garcia Lorca and the deeply moving, tragic choral work, Figure Humaine. In 1957 he produced the opera Les Dialogue, des Carmelites, and in 1959 La Voix Humaine, with the six-part Gloria for chorus and orchestra in 1961. Francis Poulenc died suddenly at his home in Paris on 30th January, 1963.

The critic Jay Harrison once compared Poulenc to Paris. "He is gay like Paris, sad like Paris. And he bustles constantly. His hands wave, his eyebrows arch, he twitches, grins, makes faces. When his mouth talks, all of him talks too. If he is not Paris, he is at least French. Not even a deaf man could doubt that." And certainly that is also true of Poulenc's music. Poulenc's eight nocturnes span about a decade (1929-1938). Although they are often played separately, Poulenc created a cycle when he composed the eighth nocturne and gave it the title Pour servir de Coda au Cycle (To serve as Coda for the Cycle). Unlike Chopin's or Fauré's, Poulenc's nocturnes are not romantic tone-poems. They are instead night-scenes and sound-images of public and private events.

The first Nocturne, in C major, acts as a prelude to the set. Composed in 1929, it is typically Poulenc – ­constructed out of a touching, almost child-like melodic pattern, with some Stravinskian style touches and a weird epilogue marked, le double plus lent. The second Nocturne (1933) is entitled Bal de jeunes filles. The young girls, in Poulenc's world, are indulging in a quadrille, a dance with both military and theatrical associations. According to Wilfrid Mellers, this Nocturne "is a delicious Poulenc image for the vulnerability of youth, perhaps even the vanity of human wishes". In 1934 Poulenc published the Nocturnes, Nos. 3 to 6. The third Nocturne is entitled Les Cloches de Malines. Mellers sees this as a different kind of genre-piece "for it aurally depicts a small-town market-square that is probably, at dead of night, destitute of people. Bells toll through fourths between F and C, played by the left hand in equal crotchets but irregular metre, as though the mechanism is defective. It may well be, since the bells are very old, being in one of Poulenc's "antique" pieces – with the proviso that its world, however ancient, is still extant… the cacophony that eventually forms a brief middle section has a programmatic intention… perhaps the frantic clangings warn of some disaster, or maybe the clock's works have gone crazy. In any case, we hear the raucous chaos in psychological as well as physical terms: the hubbub is the ills that flesh is heir to, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, things that go bump in the night."

The fourth Nocturne, Bal fantôme, carries a quotation by Julien Green: Pas une note des valses ou des scottisches ne se perdait dans toute la maison, si bien que le malade eut sa part de la fête et put rêver sur son grabat aux bonnes années de sa jeunesse (Not a note of the waltzes or the schottisches was lost in the whole house, so that the sick man shared in the festival and could dream on his death-bed of the good years of his youth). We are led by Pouleuc through an old-world, phantom ball where the chromatic harmony, sensuously spaced, moves us through a bygone-era waltz. It is dream-like, seductive and welcoming. The fifth Nocturne is entitled Phalènes (Moths). In this Presto misterioso, Mellers hears the moths flickering in an irridescent bitonality. It is one of Poulenc's more pictorial pieces – the coda is a quivering, sepulchral fragment of music, which Mellers feels may signal a human allegory: "we may be moths, jittering directionless:”

We are again outdoors for the sixth Nocturne. Mellers sees the work as "wafting through darkness". In the seventh Nocturne, our jeunes filles are back dancing or strolling on a balmy summer night. According to Mellers, "since the young girls are recalled in the seventh Nocturne (1935), it makes sense that Poulenc should round off the cycle with an epilogue." The eighth Nocturne (1938) is designated Nocturne pour servir de Coda au Cycle. It begins with a tune close to that of the first Nocturne, but in 3/4 instead of 4/4. Mellers sees this as "a positive evolution… the music modulates flat wards ending on bare fifths of C, so the tonic C basic to the suite is reinstated, but not strongly affirmed. Fallibly human, Poulenc mistrusted definitive answers. This delectable suite of eight Nocturnes displays the loving care with which Poulenc defined, and protected, his vulnerabilities, even though they are less patent than those of the jeunes filles."

After World War I, Poulenc returned to the study of music, although he remained in the French army until after the Armistice. He became a pupil of Charles Koechlin. Around 1920 the critic Henri Collet grouped together Auric and Poulenc, together with Milhaud, Honegger, Durey and Tailleferre, as Les Six. Also in 1920 he composed his delectable Suite in C, dedicating the work to his teacher, Ricardo Viñes. Viñes, a legendary pianist and champion of Debussy and Ravel, gave the first performance in April of that year in Paris at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique. Wilfrid Mellers finds that "all three movements distil luminosity from C major scales". There are influences of Stravinsky in this work, as well as Satie in the (not very) slow movement. The Suite in C is typical of Poulenc's early piano style, full of delicacy and classical vivacity. In 1921 the distinguished composers in Les Six collaborated (Durey excepted) to provide music for Jean Cocteau's scandal-provoking ballet-farce Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel. That summer, Pouleuc completed his next piano work, the Promenades. These ten pieces comprising Promenades are stylistically different from the Suite in C. In fact, Poulenc's true self is obscured in this difficult collection. His style becomes highly modern and advanced. We hear poly harmonies and luxuriant textures (more common to Ravel), even Stravinskian polytonality and polymetre. Most pianists avoid this work because of its technical and musical difficulties. Once deciphered, the music of Promenades shows us a Dali-like (or perhaps, more appropriately, Magritte-like) world of travel, where nothing seems to be quite what it seems, or, just perhaps, it is exactly as it should be. In a sense, Poulenc has created ten preludes, which he regarded as ten variations on ten different themes. He wrote: "The special technique of each number creates a trompe l'oreille effect, whereby one of them seems to be in thirds, another in repeated octaves… In this way I seek to achieve a semblance of unity". We begin our travel on foot (A pied). Nonchalantly, we stroll around the city in the evening, taking-in the sensations. When we get into the car (En auto) we become possessed, flooring the pedal and breaking all the speed laws. It is a harrowing ride. Showing his best sense of humour, Poulenc wrote the word Chopin and drew a square in the score. Perhaps, Chopin's ghost was doing the driving. Our travel continues much calmer on a horse (A cheval). The peaceful gait reminds us of a nineteenth-century tour with Poulenc wearing the hat of Bizet or Chabrier. We arrive at a lake and become passengers in a boat (En bateau). Clearly, Poulenc did not enjoy water travel. The powerfully undulating figures remind us of the unpleasant experiences of seasickness. When the boat is finally moored, we step on board an airplane (En avian). Although we are in the air, this plane is travelling very slowly, as if we are floating (almost weightlessly) through the sky in a dream-state. When we land, we board a bus (En autobus). Poulenc's bus is overcrowded and the driver seems to be a maniac. We hit every pothole as we career into oblivion. But before all comes to an end in a crash, we change our mode of transportation to horse and carriage (En voiture). Although there are some stones on the road this method of travel is much more pleasant. Next, we embark on a train (En chemin de fer). The rhythm of this neo-classical train is absolutely regular. At the station, we take our bicycle (A bicyclette). If the music gives one the feeling that we are slightly out of control and we are travelling down steep hills, it is because we are. The hour is late, and we head home in the postal diligence (En diligence) manned by two very tired postal carriers, who are either singing or playing their post-horns in different keys. Artur Rubinstein, to whom the Promenades are dedicated, first performed them at the Wigmore Hall London, on 4th July, 1923.

In 1927, Poulenc contributed a Pastourelle to a ballet cobbled together by ten composer friends for a private performance at the salon of René and Jeanne Dubost under the title of L'Eventail de Jeanne. Poulenc's arrangement for piano of the Pastourelle became very popular, perhaps because it combined two of Poulenc's calling cards, childlike simplicity and an antique sounding framework, combined with a smile.

Villageoises, a set of six children's pieces were completed by Poulenc at Montmartre in February, 1933. Written with simplicity and an impish smile, these compositions, although intended for children, are hardly childish. The Tyrolean waltz is a caricature, with a few, intentionally, mis-drawn lines. The rest of the pieces are equally catchy and somewhat circus-like, all good-natured pianistic fun, repeated at the end with the Coda. Composed in the same year, Feuillets d'album (‘Album Leaves’) are brief musical inscriptions to friends. The whimsical opening Ariette is tinged with a nostalgic sadness. Rêve, which follows is ethereal, almost as if we are in a land of make-believe, and before we know it, our dream is over. The Gigue is one of Poulenc's pieces in olden style, yet peculiarly contemporary.

More substantial are the Intennezzi. The first two were composed in August, 1934 and the last in March, 1943. Poulenc once declared music to be his portrait, and nowhere is this more true than in the Intermezzi. The Intermezzo No. 1 in C major bustles as if we were on a quick sight-seeing tour of Paris. In his Intermezzo No. 2 in D flat major there is an air of refinement, retrospection and, perhaps, fond memories of days past. The Intermezzo No. 3 in A flat major is the embodiment of the word "charming". The music seems simply to roll-off the pages, each sound following another in such an honest and natural way, with eloquence and unmistakable Frenchness.

The Bourrée au Pavilion d'Auvergne was completed on 7th May, 1937 and dedicated to the great French pianist Marguerite Long. It was published as part of two volumes of piano pieces written in commemoration of the Universal Exposition of 1937 in Paris. In composing his Bourrée, Poulenc created a contemporary dance with a seventeenth-century flavour. The droning repetitive feel of the work is Poulenc's way of mimicking folk-instruments such as the musette or the hurdy-gurdy. Ricardo Viñes gave the first performance of the Valse in 1919. Viñes, with whom Poulenc began piano studies in 1916, was a great influence on the composer. Many years later, Poulenc wrote: "I owe him everything… It's really to Viñes that I owe my first flights in music and everything I know about the piano". This early Poulenc work is full of delicious irreverences, deceptive simplicity, and wry wit.

Marina and Victor Ledin

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