POULENC: Piano Music, Vol. 1 (Olivier Cazal) (Naxos: 8.553929)
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Piano Music, Volume 1
Francis Poulenc wrote music that is witty, satirical, whimsical, andsometimes, even, impudent. His musical structures are light and graceful, histextures are fragile, and his technical assurance is rock-solid. In everythinghe ever wrote, Poulenc exhibited extraordinary skill, yet what we bear isdeceptively simple, brief and clear. Whether it is a work of tender sentimentsor of intense emotions, his musical smile was always infectiously charming.
Born in 1899 in Paris, Poulenc wrote his first piano compositions inearly 1917. In 1919 the concert audiences heard his three MouvementsPerpetuels and Poulenc became a household name almost overnight. He thenjoined a group of French composers (along with Milhaud, Durey, Auric, Honeggerand Tailleferre) called Les Six. In 1924 Sergey Dyagilev commissionedPoulenc to write a score for the Ballets Russes, and the result was LesRiches ('The Does'). The ballet was a great success. One critic wrote:"The Poulenc score is exquisite... With its ironic and slightly rakishtwists, its thoroughly traditional elegance of thought, it goes straight to thepoint, its one aim being to bring delight".
Many works followed - the Concert Champ?¬tre, the Concerto fortwo piano, and orchestra, the Mass in G major, songs, chambermusic and, of course, more piano pieces. During World War II, Poulenc was anactive member of the French Resistance movement. Works from these years includethe poignant Violin Sonata dedicated to the memory of Federico GarciaLorca and the deeply moving, tragic choral work, Figure Humaine. In 1957he produced the opera Les Dialogue, des Carmelites, and in 1959 LaVoix Humaine, with the six-part Gloria for chorus and orchestra in1961. Francis Poulenc died suddenly at his home in Paris on 30th January, 1963.
The critic Jay Harrison once compared Poulenc to Paris. "He is gaylike Paris, sad like Paris. And he bustles constantly. His hands wave, hiseyebrows arch, he twitches, grins, makes faces. When his mouth talks, all ofhim talks too. If he is not Paris, he is at least French. Not even a deaf mancould doubt that." And certainly that is also true of Poulenc's music.
Poulenc's eight nocturnes span about a decade (1929-1938). Although they areoften played separately, Poulenc created a cycle when he composed the eighthnocturne and gave it the title Pour servir de Coda au Cycle (To serve asCoda for the Cycle). Unlike Chopin's or Faure's, Poulenc's nocturnes are notromantic tone-poems. They are instead night-scenes and sound-images of publicand private events.
The first Nocturne, in C major, acts as a prelude to theset. Composed in 1929, it is typically Poulenc - ?¡constructed out of atouching, almost child-like melodic pattern, with some Stravinskian styletouches and a weird epilogue marked, le double plus lent. The second Nocturne(1933) is entitled Bal de jeunes filles. The young girls, inPoulenc's world, are indulging in a quadrille, a dance with both military andtheatrical associations. According to Wilfrid Mellers, this Nocturne "isa delicious Poulenc image for the vulnerability of youth, perhaps even thevanity of human wishes". In 1934 Poulenc published the Nocturnes, Nos.
3 to 6. The third Nocturne is entitled Les Cloches de Malines. Mellerssees this as a different kind of genre-piece "for it aurally depicts asmall-town market-square that is probably, at dead of night, destitute ofpeople. Bells toll through fourths between F and C, played by the left hand inequal crotchets but irregular metre, as though the mechanism is defective. Itmay 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 hasa 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 raucouschaos in psychological as well as physical terms: the hubbub is the ills thatflesh is heir to, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, things that gobump in the night."
The fourth Nocturne, Bal fant??me, carries a quotation by JulienGreen: Pas une note des valses ou des scottisches ne se perdait dans toutela maison, si bien que le malade eut sa part de la f?¬te et put r?¬ver surson grabat aux bonnes annees de sa jeunesse (Not a note of the waltzes orthe schottisches was lost in the whole house, so that the sick man shared inthe 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 chromaticharmony, sensuously spaced, moves us through a bygone-era waltz. It isdream-like, seductive and welcoming. The fifth Nocturne is entitled Phal?¿nes(Moths). In this Presto misterioso, Mellers hears the mothsflickering in an irridescent bitonality. It is one of Poulenc's more pictorialpieces - the coda is a quivering, sepulchral fragment of music, which Mellersfeels may signal a human allegory: "we may be moths, jitteringdirectionless:\
We are again outdoors for the sixth Nocturne. Mellers sees thework as "wafting through darkness". In the seventh Nocturne, ourjeunes 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 anepilogue." The eighth Nocturne (1938) is designated Nocturnepour servir de Coda au Cycle. It begins with a tune close to that of thefirst Nocturne, but in 3/4 instead of 4/4. Mellers sees this as "apositive 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 ofeight Nocturnes displays the loving care with which Poulenc defined, andprotected, his vulnerabilities, even though they are less patent than those ofthe jeunes filles."
After World War I, Poulenc returned to the study of music, although heremained in the French army until after the Armistice. He became a pupil ofCharles Koechlin. Around 1920 the critic Henri Collet grouped together Auricand Poulenc, together with Milhaud, Honegger, Durey and Tailleferre, as Les Six.
Also in 1920 he composed his delectable Suite in C, dedicating thework to his teacher, Ricardo Vines. Vines, a legendary pianist and champion ofDebussy and Ravel, gave the first performance in April of that year in Paris ata concert of the Societe Nationale de Musique. Wilfrid Mellers finds that"all three movements distil luminosity from C major scales". Thereare 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 pianostyle, full of delicacy and classical vivacity. In 1921 the distinguishedcomposers in Les Six collaborated (Durey excepted) to provide music forJean Cocteau's scandal-provoking ballet-farce Les Maries de la Tour Eiffel. Thatsummer, Pouleuc completed his next piano work, the Promenades. These tenpieces comprising Promenades are stylistically different