Saturday 3 October 2020

Surrender to the craziness of it all: Poulenc's 'Aubade' and 'Le Bal masqué' at St John's Smith Square

Francis Poulenc
Francis Poulenc

The Masked Ball
- Poulenc, Satie; Mark Bebbington, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jan Latham Koenig; St John's Smith Square

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 October 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Sparkling wit and charm in two rarely performed Poulenc works in an imaginative chamber programme

It is heartening to see some ensembles using the present restrictions to exercise imagination when programming concerts. Hot on the heels of Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic's season opener of Hindemith, Stravinsky and Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony (of which more in my A Life On-Line column), pianist Mark Bebbington, conductor Jan Latham Koenig and members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra gave a lunchtime concert at St John's Smith Square on Friday 2 October 2020, with Francis Poulenc's Aubade and Le Bal masqué (with baritone Roderick Williams), alongside music by Satie.

Aubade and Le Bal masqué are both key Poulenc works, but written for slightly unusual instrumental combinations, the works do not get outings as often as they should. I am not sure whether I have heard Aubade live before. Its subtitle is 'concerto choréographique' and it is written for piano and 18 instruments (a mix of strings and wind, but no violins). It was commissioned in 1929, as a ballet score to be performed out of doors with the dance choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska; does any documentation of this performance survive, I wonder?

Perhaps it was because he was writing for outdoors, but Poulenc's writing in the piece seems to use a lot of strong colours and vivid contrasts, something that the performance brought out right from the start, bold blocks of instrumental colour against sparkling piano writing. Though in eight movements, the piece does not stay in one mood for long, and the performers brought out the fabulous combinations of sounds. Mark Bebbington was suitably witty and charming in the busy piano part, but this is less of a concerto and more of a concerto grosso, and it was vivid colours from the ensemble which appealed.

Bebbington followed this with a trio of solo piano works, first Satie's Gnossienne No. 4 (from 1891) where Bebbington brought richly vivid tone to the work's limpid simplicity. This was followed by Satie's Embryons desseches from 1913, three short movements each named for an obscure crustacean! Full of cheeky harmonies, which evoked Poulenc (33 years younger than Satie), odd repeated chords, and near quotations of Scots songs and popular songs, the work intrigued indeed. Bebbington completed the group with Poulenc's Improvisation No. 15 'Hommage a Edith Piaf'. Written in 1959, whilst Piaf was in hospital having an operation, the work was full of evocative melodies and lovely piano textures.

Less well known that his Sonata for Two Pianos, Poulenc's Sonata for Piano, Four Hands was originally written in 1918 (when the composer was just 19), but he revised it in 1939. Mark Bebbington was joined at the piano by Jan Latham Koenig, and the work proved to be full of delights, wonderful splashy chords, catchy tunes, strong textures and great charm.

Le Bal masqué is a 'secular cantata' based on the surrealist poems of Max Jacob, written for baritone and ensemble (oboe, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, percussion, piano, violin, cello). The scenario is mad, full of stream-of-consciousness and Poulenc said that at the end the audience should be stupefied. The problem is, of course, that the craziness of the text tends to wash over the heads of non-French speakers. We did not have the printed text (and I have been to performances in the past where an English translation was not printed because the French made no sense anyway!). Roderick Williams worked hard indeed on the text, much of it delivered as mad patter songs, but the words themselves often escaped into the St John's acoustic. Elegant phrases jostled with mad gestures, serious moments with crazy, spiky rhythms. You just had to surrender to the seductive craziness of it all.

Mark Bebbington, Jan Latham Koenig and members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra return to St John's Smith Square on Wednesday 21 October 2020 for a programme of music by Lennox Berkeley, and Robert Matthew Walker alongside the second movement of a new realisation of Elgar's Piano Concerto.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, principal players: Violin - Duncan Riddell, Viola - Abigail Fenna, Cello - Richard Harwood, Double Bass - Benjamin Cunningham, Flute - Emer McDonagh, Oboe - John Roberts, Clarinet - Katherine Lacey, Bassoon - Helen Storey, Horn - Diego Incertis Sanchez, Trumpet - Michael Allen, Percussion - Stephen Quigley

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Not toeing the line: Kristjan Järvi on deliberately creating his own sound-world on Nordic Escapes, his first disc of entirely his own music  - my interview
  • Toe-tapping arias & moments of drama: Vivaldi's Tamerlano from Ottavio Dantone & Accademia Bizantina  - Cd review
  • Shedding light on an important figure in the Irish literary renaissaince: the songs and airs of J. F. Larchet prove a real discovery - CD review
  • Abandonnata: Helen Charlston and Toby Carr in Monteverdi, Purcell, Strozzi and Owain Park  - concert review
  • Lamentate: Arvo Pärt's largest scale orchestral work recorded by Lithuanian forces in honour of the composer's 85th birthday  - CD review
  • Opera as community experience: Thomas Guthrie on his new projects exploring classic Schubert, creating a new secret library and urban operas  - interview
  • Richard Strauss, Coleridge-Taylor, Mahler: Elizabeth Llewellyn & Simon Lepper in outstanding form at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • 'A strange profession' - looking forward to John Bridcut's film, Bernard Haitink, the Enigmatic Maestro - feature 
  • From Early English epic to music-theatre: Toby Young's Beowulf with the Armonico Consort and AC Academy choirs - CD review
  • Composing The Red Shoes: I chat to Terry Davies about creating the score for Matthew Bourne's ballet based on Bernard Herrmann's music - interview
  • Joel Lundberg's Music from a room - CD review
  • Home


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