POULENC Improvisations. Novelettes. Sonata for 4 hands
Lucille Chung’s new Poulenc disc is doubly welcome. To begin with, Chung is a startlingly original pianist whose solo work, apart from discs of Scriabin and Ligeti, we’ve heard too little of. Poulenc’s piano music in general, and certainly the 15 Improvisations as a set, is under-represented among recent recordings. Chung was born in Montreal to devoutly Roman Catholic Korean parents, attended a French girls’ school and has delighted in Poulenc since childhood. What better guide into the special realms of this idiosyncratic, intrinsically French yet thoroughly cosmopolitan 20th-century master?
The first six Improvisations were published together in 1932, with the remaining eight appearing singly through to 1959. Despite their protracted genesis and formal variety, they have in common a freshness of inspiration expressed with the utmost economy of means (only the last exceeds three minutes). Chung captures the sense of a series of musical snapshots with the evanescent spontaneity of her playing. She is able to evoke the mercurial mood changes so characteristic of Poulenc with grace, consistently beautiful sound and an unerring sense of proportion. In succession, each seems more vivid than the last. The third might be a chance encounter with Prokofiev in the Place de la Concorde, the sixth a procession of toy soldiers. The wistful flow of the seventh verges on melancholy without succumbing. ‘Hommage à Schubert’, the 12th, lovingly evokes Biedermeier Vienna with perhaps a tip of the hat to Ravel, while the sombre intensity of the 13th seems to presage Dialogues des Carmélites.
The same precision of mood prevails in the three Novelettes. Morning freshness is conjured with guileless simplicity in the C major Novelette, while the third, ‘on a theme of Manuel de Falla’, exudes a sultry, straight-spined Iberian hauteur.
In the Sonata for four hands, L’embarquement pour Cythère and Poulenc’s own transcription of his Concerto for Two Pianos for two pianists without orchestra, Chung is joined by her husband, Alessio Bax. Here the Concerto is the standout, gliding seamlessly between ferocity, biting irony, melting beauty and sheer magic. Bon appétit!