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Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc (1899 -1963)
A Comparative Discography

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 2 April 1999 - As music lovers cannot fail to be aware, this year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Francis Poulenc, a composer too easily dismissed by those in pursuit of high intellectual satisfaction. Poulenc's music has an immediate impact on the listener, but goes beyond a mere surface charm as almost all of his vocal music testifies, whether the Apollinaire or Eluard song cycles, or Aragon's "C", or the composer's only full-length opera, Dialogue des Carmélites. As Poulenc matured, he developed a religious streak that gave rise to a number of sacred choral works that are often performed, only the late Sept Réponses de Ténèbre not yet in favor, perhaps because the solos devolving to a boy soprano are not nearly so juicy as those of the Stabat Mater or the Gloria. This is a work that merits more than the two recordings it has had to date.

Readers are referred to the Diary entries for 20 January and 2 February where I discuss performances of Dialogues des Carmélites in Strasbourg and Les Mamelles de Tirésias in Montpellier, both fitting tributes. At the same time, the recording industry has done itself proud, especially EMI, whose Edition du Centenaire offers the (almost) complete works on 20 cds at a most attractive price, lacking only one or two of the early pieces present on the Decca set featuring Pascal Rogé and some of the Soirées de Nazelles, while we must be content with the suite from Les Animaux Modèles. Listening to the recent harvest, one is especially struck at how consistent the composer was throughout his career, the " fingerprints " making it clear how much cross-fertilization there was between the playboy and the religious ascetic components of his personality.

EMI has refurbished many of its classic recordings, whether the composer playing his 2-piano concerto or accompanying Pierre Bernac in the late 1940s or the mono recordings of Dialogues and Mamelles that allow us to savor the talent of Denise Duval who also shines in La Voix Humaine. Dialogues benefits from a dream cast, with the young Régine Crespin and Rita Gorr additionally meriting attention - this was, after all, the cast that gave the French premiere a few months after the world premiere at La Scala (in Italian translation, of course).

While EMI's set of the complete songs with Elly Ameling, Nicolai Gedda and Gérard Souzay, among others, was not ideal, it nonetheless is the basis of the volume devoted to mélodies, although some fascinating substitutions have been made, including Rita Streich to sing the Airs chantés, Liliane Berton for the Vilmorin songs, Jessye Norman for La fraîcheur et le feu and, unfortunately, Mady Mesplé - a taste I have never acquired even while admiring her intentions - in several items. All the songs that were written with instrumental accompaniments are so rendered, with the inimitable Jean-Christophe Benoit on several tracks.

The chamber and piano music were long available on twofer sets, but Yehudi Menuhin's performance of the violin sonata has been replaced by Frank Peter Zimmerman who is equally as eloquent and with surer intonation.

It is interesting to hear three generations of pianists tackle a part of the repertoire that the composer did not rate as highly as some of his other works. Gabriele Tacchino for EMI worked with the composer and with Jacques Février, a long-time collaborator of Poulenc (who is also to be heard on the EMI set), so that his interpretations can be considered to possess a degree of authenticity. Pascal Rogé represents a younger generation, and his set for Decca comprises one new release to complement two earlier discs. While he clearly understands as well as his predecessor the importance of maintaining clarity in a wash of pedal, he has been recorded in a too reverberant location.

The new RCA set features a young French pianist, Eric Le Sage, whose readings might be too dry for some but capture Poulenc's underlying wit and elegance. Le Sage is the unifying factor in RCA's complete chamber music, accompanying some of France's leading young instrumentalists, though nowhere is it stated which of the two flutists or clarinettists is playing in the works using those instruments. That is a minor quibble unless you are a particular fan of Emmanuel Pahud or Mathieu Dufour, or Paul Meyer or Michel Portal as the case may be, but the set otherwise merits attention for its musical values as well as the sound emanating from the Arsenal de Metz where RCA recorded both albums.

Decca's complete songs offers a double CD to complement two earlier releases, but despite Rogé's support the vocalism leaves much to be desired. And might one point out that one song seems to have been (unintentionally, I trust) omitted, Je nommerai ton front, the second of the Miroirs brûlants, perhaps as a result of the piecemeal recording. Only Gilles Cachemaille's straightforward readings are satisfactory. François Le Roux seems to have been recorded on a bad day, his voice almost in tatters and a far cry from his appearance on the EMI set singing the Ronsard settings in their orchestral version. Catherine Dubosc's shallow-toned soprano rapidly wears on the nerves, while Felicity Lott - somewhat less arch than usual - remains a singer to whom I do not warm, nor does she meet the composer's requirement that the singer not over-interpret. Urszula Kryger is present for the Polish songs to which the composer furnished accompaniments, sounding more comfortable than Gedda on EMI.

The orchestral music on Decca offers only the suites for Les Biches and Les Animaux Modèles, but excellent performances of the concerti, with Dutoit a sympathetic accompanist, as always. I would not be surprised if a complete chamber music were to appear as much of it has already been recorded with Rogé.

With only one recording - and that almost fifty years old - a new version of Les Mamelles de Tirésias was long overdue. Taking advantage of Seiji Ozawa's virtuoso Japanese orchestra and a Franco-American cast, Philips has tried to equal what was an extraordinary achievement. While we tend to think that the opera belongs to the soprano, in the absence of Denise Duval we realize how important is the role of the Husband, and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt sinks his teeth into the part. Barbara Bonney's Thérèse is charming, but it is not her fault that she is not Duval in a role as dependent on personality as voice. Wolfgang Holzmair hardly seems a likely choice for Le Bal Masqué, and in the event seems to be concentrating too hard on getting out the words. Ozawa enjoys himself but tends to sentimentalize when a more acid approach would be more to the point.

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