Tuesday 10 March 2020

Poulenc at the piano: a chance to hear an alternative version of the 'Concert champêtre' on this new disc of concertos and chamber music

Francis Poulenc - Mark Bebbington - Resonus Classics
Francis Poulenc Piano Concerto, Concert champêtre; Mark Bebbington, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jan Latham-Koenig; Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 March 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Poulenc's harpsichord concerto in its rarely performed piano version on this new disc where Mark Bebbington teams up the composer's concertos with his chamber music

This new disc featuring music by Francis Poulenc has two intriguing features. The first is that pianist Mark Bebbington has chosen to pair two of Poulenc's concertante works for piano and orchestra with two of his chamber music pieces. The second is that Bebbington is performing Poulenc's Concert champêtre in the composer's version for piano and orchestra.

Pianist Mark Bebbington performs Francis Poulenc's Piano Concerto and Concert champêtre with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Jan Latham-Koenig, and Poulenc's Trio for Piano, Oboe & Bassoon and Sonata for Oboe & Piano with oboist John Roberts and bassoonist Jonathan Davies on Resonus Classics.

Francis Poulenc's Piano Concerto dates from 1949 and was a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a piece for Poulenc to play on his second American tour in 1950 when he premiered the work in Boston conducted by Charles Munch. The work was politely received, but it wasn't the virtuoso showcase that audiences wanted, nor was it well-received when given its European premiere, though nowadays we are able to enjoy the piece for itself.

Bebbington, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Latham-Koenig give a poised and relaxed, almost laid back account of the concerto's opening movement. Full of lovely detail, they make the work less spiky and jokey than some performances, bringing out the richness of orchestration and the sonorous writing for piano in the more sombre sections. The slow movement is given quite a thoughtful performance, with blasts of more disruptive elements, whilst the finale is perkily characterful though the speed might be a tad too steady. The quotations from the French folk-song which sounds like Swannee River bring a nicely sly touch.

Poulenc's trio for piano, oboe and bassoon dates from 1926, and is one of the earliest of Poulenc's more serious pieces. The piece starts with a strikingly stark motif, but then the perkier music starts and the three performers bring real wit to the performance. The slower sections have a lovely bitter-sweet quality, and the contrast in timbres is lovely. The characterful yet quite serious slow movement really comes over as a conversation between friends, and they show complete enjoyment in the witty finale.

I often have a problem with modern performances of Poulenc's Concert champêtre. The work was written for the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who played on a harpsichord that was very much a modern creation; her favoured instrument was the Pleyel Grand Modele de Concert harpsichord - a seven-and-a-half foot long instrument with foot pedal-controlled registers and which owed much to piano construction. Such instruments are rarely used (or available) in modern performance and balance between soloist and orchestra can be tricky, to say the least. [Try the Naxos recording with Elisabeth Chojnacka, the Orchestra National de Lille and Jean-Claude Casadesus if you want to hear a performance of the concerto using a large-scale 20th century harpsichord].

Poulenc created a version of the concerto for piano and orchestra, and whilst he said to a friend that it was a make-shift ('un pis aller') he did actually play the piano version rather a lot. And I have to say that on this disc, Mark Bebbington is a convincing advocate. With a piano as solo protagonist, the balance is somewhat re-set and Bebbington, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Latham-Koenig give quite a dramatic account of the first movement. The opening neo-classical gesture is striking, and then much of the movement is a perky delight. Without the harpsichord's timbre, the sense of evoking antique eras is, however, somewhat lost and this sounds very mid-20th century. In the slow movement we can appreciate Bebbington's delicacy, but also that he can give more strength to the solo line. In the finale he gives us some dazzling finger work, and we can appreciate Poulenc's debt to other composers in some passages. The ending is perhaps quite stately, but with superb brilliance in the piano playing.

The final work on the disc was Poulenc's last major work, written in 1962. John Roberts (principal oboe in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) plays the first movement with a superbly elegant sense of line, and both performers bring out the bitter-sweet nature of the writing. The slow movement features a lovely interplay between the two, whilst the final movement is beautifully poignant and not a little disturbing in that it was almost the last thing that Poulenc wrote.

This is a lovely programme, though the CD booklet does not seem to give us any indication of why these particular works were gathered together, why this particular sonatas, why not Aubade (the concerto for piano and 18 instruments). But simply as a fine exploration of Poulenc at the piano, this works, and the inclusion of the rarely performed piano version of the harpsichord concerto makes the disc essential listening for many.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) - Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Francis Poulenc - Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon
Francis Poulenc - Concert champetre
Francis Poulenc - Oboe Sonata
Mark Bebbington (piano)
John Roberts (oboe)
Jonathan Davies (bassoon)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Jan Latham-Koenig (conductor)
Recorded at St John's Smith Square, 22-23 September, 18 October 2019

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