Poulenc Piano Works Damgaard Danacord DACOCD960

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Huit nocturnes (1929-1938)
Trois mouvements perpétuels (1919)
Mélancolie (1940)
Trois intermezzi (1934, 1943)
Trois pièces (1918, 1928)
John Damgaard (piano)
rec. October 2022, Concert Hall, Danish National Academy of Music, Odense, Denmark
Danacord Records DACOCD 960 [50]

It is important to draw a distinction between the Nocturnes of John Field, Frédéric Chopin and Gabriel Fauré and the eight that Francis Poulenc composed. As a rule of thumb, his examples are “night scenes” rather than “night music”, nor are they necessarily slow and romantic. They need not be heard as a set. In fact, in his University of Maryland doctoral dissertation on Poulenc’s piano music, Ji Won Lim has suggested that Poulenc never played them as such. Certainly, he had his personal favourites, possibly Nos. 1, 2 and 4 which he recorded.

The effect of the Nocturnes, written over a ten-year period, is a little uneven. The first is the best of the bunch, with its open-hearted melody supported by a traditionally arpeggiated accompaniment. The second, Bal de jeunes filles (The young girls’ dance) is Schumannesque, with lively, dotted-note rhythm and exuberant dancing mood. The third nocturne evokes Les cloches de Malines with its sympathetic depiction of the old bells bookending a dissonant middle section. (Malines, or Mechelen, is a town half-way between Antwerp and Brussels.)

Bal fantôme is the nearest Poulenc comes to composing a traditional nocturne. It would have helped if the liner notes had included the quotation heading this piece in the commentary: “Not a note of the waltzes or schottisches was lost throughout the house, so that the patient had his share of the party and could dream on his pallet of the good years of his youth.” (Julien Green’s novel Le visionnaire from 1934). The result is pure nostalgia. Next comes the skittery Phalènes (Moths), which suggests the winged creatures caught in the moonbeams; Bartók and Prokofiev may be the models here. The sixth nocturne, in G major, deeply felt and quite intense, has some lovely atmospheric effects. The seventh, in E-flat major, looks to the dancing girls again, this time on a sultry summer’s night. Poulenc entitled the final nocturne ‘To serve as a Coda’, which suggests that he may have regarded them as a cycle. Certainly, the mood of this piece looks back to the opening number.

The Trois mouvements perpétuels may be Poulenc’s best-known piano work. The Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes premiered them in 1919 in Paris. They are dedicated to the French artist and author Valentine Gross, often recalled for her work with the Russian Ballet and the Surrealists. The short movements are Assez modéré, Tres modéré and Alerte. As the title implies, these delightful pieces explore Poulenc’s concept of perpetual motion. His devices include ostinatos, scalar melodies and, in the final movement, a “collage of small ideas and motives”. These mouvements have been criticised for being juvenile, but they may as well be described as subtle and very nuanced. They fulfil Poulenc’s conceit that they are like “a brisk stroll by the Seine” in the heart of Paris.

Mélancolie was dedicated to Poulenc’s then lover Raymond Destouches, a chauffeur from Noizay. Marcel Meyer performed it first in 1941 at the Salle Gaveau in Paris. It was ostensibly inspired by Poulenc’s demobilisation from an anti-aircraft battalion at Bordeaux and by the occupation of Paris. That said, there is a feeling of love song in these dreamy, wistful pages, which seem to be looking back to happier days.

The track listing here suggests that Three Intermezzi are one piece, but only the first two were written in 1934; the standalone third intermezzo was penned nine years later. The intermezzo in C major has been likened to a whirlwind tour of Paris. The introspective second work, in D-flat major, casts a backward glance to cheerier times. The Intermezzo in A-flat, the longest and most involved of the “set”, nods to Fauré and an evocative salon style. The liner notes say that Poulenc concluded it with twelve chords in all the keys, “probably an ironic greeting to the Germans in his beloved Paris”.

The Pastorale of the Trois pièces was written in 1918, revised in 1928 and duly combined with the other two numbers. It is an impressionistic, almost atonal, piece featuring soft dissonances and much chromaticism. The Hymne is a powerful and unsettling statement, with noisy, harsh and typically sombre progress; the middle section is a little more relaxed. The last number is a bravura Toccata in the “French style”, full of “scissors and paste” figurations, perpetual motion and agitation. I understand that it was Vladimir Horowitz’s favourite encore. The whole score was dedicated to Ricardo Viñes.

John Damgaard is a Danish pianist with much experience on the recital stage, the recording studio and in academia. Important recordings include the complete sonatas of Franz Schubert and the complete piano works of Maurice Ravel. Damgaard devised minimalist notes, which sadly say little about the music: it is more of an impression, albeit interesting. My review has filled in a few points.

When I listen to Poulenc’s piano music, I usually turn to Pascal Rogé’s magnificent survey in a Decca box set from 1998. Rogé’s playing perfectly balances affection, elegance and sophistication – the qualities I look for in any performance of Poulenc’s music. John Damgaard exhibits these traits in abundance, and is complimented by Danacord’s excellent recording.

I do not know if this is the first of a series of discs devoted to Francis Poulenc, or a one-off recital. It would be good if Damgaard turned his attention to the Improvisations, Napoli and Les soirées de Nazelles.

John France

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