About this Recording
8.553931 - POULENC: Piano Music, Vol. 3

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Piano Music, Volume 3

Francis Poulenc was born on 7th January 1899 in Paris into a well-to-do family of pharmaceutical manufacturers. His childhood passion, as he once wrote, was playing the piano, encouraged by the present of a child's piano when he was two. His mother was his first teacher and by 1915 he had decided to study the instrument seriously, embarking on lessons with the eccentric virtuoso and family friend, Ricardo Vines. It was Viñes who, about a year later, introduced him to the remarkable Erik Satie, and it was through Viñes that he met a composer of his own age, Georges Auric, who became his lifelong friend. Francis Poulenc quickly became an excellent pianist and often performed, chiefly his own compositions, both as soloist and accompanist.

Poulenc's earliest piano compositions date from 1917. After the war he returned to the study of music, although he remained in the French army until after the Armistice. In 1921 he became a pupil of Charles Koechlin, an excellent teacher, who advised his pupils to avoid the exaggerations of romanticism without sacrificing depth of feeling. In 1919 concert audiences had heard Poulenc's three Mouvements Perpetuels, the immediate popularity of which brought his name to public attention. It was in 1920 that the critic Henri Collet, somewhat arbitrarily, grouped together Auric and Poulenc, with Milhaud, Honegger, Durey and Tailleferre, as Les Six (‘The Six’), but the association remained one of friendship rather than close musical affinity.

The following decades were fruitful for Poulenc, the period of many of his finest works, including the Concert champêtre, a Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, the Mass in G major, songs, chamber music and, of course, more piano pieces. During World War II, he showed through his music his support of the French Resistance. Works from these years include the poignant Violin Sonata dedicated to the memory of Federico García Lorca and the deeply moving, tragic choral work, Figure humaine, for unaccompanied double chorus, based on a poem of Paul Éluard. In 1947 his opéra bouffe, Les mamelles de Tirésias, was performed at the Opéra-Comique. The audiences were both shocked and delighted by the tongue-in-cheek score and the strange libretto by the composer, based on the play by Guillaume Apollinaire, where one character changes his sex and another gives birth to 40,000 babies. In 1956 he completed the opera the Dialogues des Carmélites, which was first performed at La Scala, Milan, the following year. In 1959 came La Voix humaine, and in 1961 the six-part Gloria for chorus and orchestra. Poulenc died suddenly at his home in Paris on 30th January, 1963.

The third volume of Poulenc's piano music opens with his Thème varié, written at his country house, Le Grand Coteau, at Noizay in Touraine, between February and September 1951. The work is dedicated to a family friend Geneviève Sienkiewicz, but the manuscript carries the words "Pour mon cher Volodia, 'le' pianiste de mon coeur et de ma musique très affectueusement. Francis, Paris Nov. 51.” (For my dear Volodia, the pianist of my heart and my music, very affectionately Francis, Paris Nov. 51). This dedication on Horowitz's copy of the score indicated that Poulenc had hoped Horowitz would give the first performance, which, instead, was given in Paris on 15th December 1952 by Jacques Février at the Salle Gaveau. In the style of a classical theme and variations, Poulenc gives each variation a descriptive mood – joyous, noble, pastoral, sarcastic, melancholic, ironic, elegiac, voluble and fantastic. Mood succeeds mood, and in the tenth of the eleven variations, entitled Sybilline, we hear an acerbic and dissonant chorale. The title is presumably a reference to the oracular Sybilline Books and the prophetess, the Sybil, of antiquity, consulted in time of national emergency in ancient Rome. With this variation Poulenc creates an oratorical break before concluding with a rousing and extended Finale and Coda.

The 15 Improvisations were among Poulenc's favourite piano works. Composed intermittently between 1932 and 1959, they contain some of his most dazzling and memorable music. In the first, the musicologist Pierrette Mari hears a bouncing elf performing gleeful pirouettes. The second, dedicated to the composer Louis Durey, is tenderly lyrical. We hear laughter and whimsy in the third, and in the fourth the percussive rhythm and frenetic dance-like mood are perhaps in homage to Prokofiev. The fifth, with its chromaticism and syncopation, is dedicated to Georges Auric. It is followed by a sixth, a characteristic bugle-call march in ancient style. The opulent seventh opens in Poulenc's child-like style, yet blossoms with much outgoing passion. Pierrette Mari imagines, in the eighth, "opening a toy box and discovering a tin soldier in love with a pretty doll.” The ninth is a perpetuum mobile, while the tenth, subtitled Eloge de Gammes" (‘In Praise of Scales’), is a whimsical view of what an exercise should be. The eleventh is short, simple and naive, and the twelfth, Hommage à Schubert, imitates a typical Schubert waltz melody, imbuing it with Poulenc's own wry Parisian wit. One of the most beautiful of the series is the thirteenth, which is full of nostalgic tenderness. Several interesting themes flow together in the sensitive fourteenth. The last of the series, Hommage à Edith Piaf, is a haunting portrait of the French singer and actress. After a lovely introduction, Poulenc mimics the theme "c'est une chanson qui te ressemble..." and provides an unforgettably poignant picture of a great musical personality, a symbol of Paris itself.

The Trois pièces from 1928 were dedicated to Ricardo Viñes, originally conceived as a set of three pastorales, composed in 1918. Poulenc retained the first Pastorale and combined it with two newly-composed movements. In 1953 he revised the score again. The opening Pastorale carries the direction calme et mystérieux and creates an impressionistic atmosphere full of soft dissonances. The Hymne, in E flat major, is grandiose, severe and solemn, while the Toccata is a bravura piece involving crossed hands, broken chord figures and oscillating melodies. Often performed by Vladimir Horowitz, it is a brilliant piano piece, full of unbounded joie de vivre.

Poulenc began the three-movement Napoli – Suite pour le piano in 1922 during a visit to Italy, completing it in Nazelles in September 1925. The first complete performance was by the pianist Marcelle Meyer at the Salle des Agriculteurs in Paris on 2nd May 1926. Conceived on a large scale as virtuoso piano music, the suite opens with a Barcarolle, a flowing cantilena. The Nocturne which follows is similarly lyrical. The third movement, Caprice italien, suggesting the bustle of Naples, is described by Poulenc as a dance in the style of Chabrier's Bourrée fantasque. It is effective, virtuosic, exuberant, and difficult.

The first two Novelettes were written in 1927 and 1928. There is a simplicity and gentleness to Novelette No. 1 in C major, giving this music particular charm. Novelette No. 2 in B flat minor is impish and full of childish playfulness. In 1960 Poulenc composed his Novelette No. 3 in E minor, splendid and haunting music, a luxurious and free improvisation on a theme from Manuel de Falla's El amor brujo.

Marina and Victor Ledin

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