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Celebrating the Music of Francis Poulenc

Poulenc underestimated his own irresistable piano concerto.

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Now that concertgoers are steeling themselves for the first spiky sounds of twenty-first-century music, the once dreaded repertory of the departing century suddenly doesn't seem quite so threatening after all. Dozens of scores written since 1900 became classics some time ago -- the Philadelphia Orchestra, in fact, is devoting its entire season to music composed during the past 100 years, and even the most conservative ears are unlikely to be alienated by programs dominated by Stravinsky, Bartók, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, et al. One composer who was always eager to please and now seems to be everyone's favorite is Francis Poulenc, whose centennial is being prominently observed this year. EMI Records has just released his complete works in four boxed sets containing twenty compact discs, and birthday concerts are popping up on all fronts.

One celebration that should not pass unnoted occurred at the 92nd Street Y over a recent weekend, a mini festival that focused on the composer's music for piano with orchestra and his rich catalogue of songs. Why the 1949 Piano Concerto is not in every pianist's repertory escapes me. Perhaps Poulenc's own modest assessment of the score as being lightweight, "a sort of souvenir de Paris for pianist-composer," has been interpreted as a father's curse, although the delicate melancholy of the andante movement, the dance-hall atmosphere of the finale, and the sheer charm of the opening measures are irresistible. The Concerto for Two Pianos of 1932 is more frequently encountered, a magical mixture of the sensual and spiritual that was Poulenc's own special contribution to the music of his time. Pascal Rogé captured both qualities and held them in perfect balance, by himself in the solo concerto and in partnership with a remarkable 12-year-old musician, Vanessa Benelli, in the two-piano score. The Eos Orchestra under Jonathan Sheffer provided ideal support.

The second program was devoted to a half dozen of Poulenc's song collections and a brief taste of his surreal one-act opera about postwar repopulation, Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Poulenc may have spoken disparagingly at times about his writing for piano, but he was rightly proud of his song output, which covers his entire creative life. If the songs sometimes seem to put the poetic event before pure musical invention, that only adds to their stature and draws us deeper into their closely observed emotional worlds. The new box of recordings on EMI (5 66849 2) containing the complete Poulenc songs on five compact discs is indispensable, and bad news for those who purchased the original 1978 compilation. They will also need this new one, which contains an extra disc, some fabulous alternate recordings, and several unpublished rarities.

One of the guiding spirits of that project was a former colleague of Poulenc's, pianist Dalton Baldwin, who also presided over the concert at the Y. That ensured a stylish, authentic presence at the keyboard, and Baldwin clearly passed on his knowledge to the five singers and two pianists who collaborated with him. Not surprisingly, the two most experienced recitalists impressed most: Norah Amsellem, whose lusciously textured soprano reveled in the sensuous moods of the Fiançailles Pour Rire cycle, and tenor Michel Sénéchal, who savored every bizarre verbal twist in Cocteau's free-association verses for Cocardes. But the hero of this delicious concert was Poulenc himself, one of the few composers of the past century whose songs can sustain a full-length program and still have an audience clamoring for more at the end.


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