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POULENC: JOKER RETURNS

There’s a common perception that French music is frivolous--or, at any rate, more given to humor and irony, to pageantry and entertainment, than to soul-searching.

The perception, while rooted in fact, has been used by the more somber sort of critic to cudgel French music in general. Music as accessible, as easy as that of, say, Francis Poulenc--or Chabrier or Massenet, even Ravel--can’t be worth much, they grimly reason.

Poulenc, who died in 1963, was tolerated, even liked, during his lifetime, but never respected outside France. He was to the larger world a charming rascal, a dabbler in composition who shamelessly juxtaposed popsy dance tunes with jagged Stravinskyisms and broad, lush melodies that could be conceived either as homages to or parodies of Ravel. Even his professedly most serious works were, heaven help us, rather too much fun to listen to.

Poulenc’s popularity suffered the usual post - mortem decline, to ascend again during the ‘80s, perhaps as a consequence of performers’ and impresarios’ increasing attempt to find new audiences with accessible, entertaining repertory. In this respect one could do much worse than Poulenc, whose music rises far above that of his jokester contemporaries, Jean Francaix and Jacques Ibert, in vigor and lyric invention.

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After a decade or more of near silence, the recording industry is taking renewed interest in Poulenc. Outstanding among several new releases of his music are two from Erato/RCA devoted to his five works for keyboard and orchestra.

One (75210, LP or CD) couples the “Concert Champetre,” written for harpsichordist Wanda Landowska in 1928, and the darker, yet equally flashy, Organ Concerto of a decade later.

The other (75203, LP or CD) includes the dizzyingly energetic, jokey-sentimental Two-Piano Concerto of 1932, with its scraps of mock-Mozart and Balinese gamelan sounds interspersed with tunes you’d expect to be sung by Edith Piaf and others you might imagine being whistled by Parisian street urchins (if they could whistle very fast); the svelte 1928 “Aubade” for piano and winds--a modern evocation of the galant opera ballets of Rameau, and the wanly pretty Piano Concerto of 1949, whose one memorable episode is the appearance of “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” in the finale.

Erato’s snazzy soloists are the French pianists Francois-Rene Duchable and Jean-Philippe Collard, who can croon a tune as well as they can rattle off a musical joke; the French organist/Bach scholar Marie-Claire Alain, and Dutch keyboardist Ton Koopman, who brings the same keen intelligence and rhythmic fire to the “Concert Champetre” that inform his interpretations of Baroque music. The Rotterdam Philharmonic plays with Gallic panache for American conductor James Conlon in all five works.

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On a single disc in its low-priced “Eminence” series (AE-34492, LP only), Angel has reissued a trio of classic Poulenc interpretations recorded under the composer’s supervision and by his favorite conductor, Georges Pretre: the “Concert Champetre,” with harpsichordist Aimee van der Wiele; a suite from his earliest success, the ballet “Les Biches,” written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1924, and the most widely performed of his post-World War II works, the exuberant, exquisitely lyrical 1961 “Gloria” (with soprano Rosanna Carteri and the French Radio-Television Chorus), an homage to a hero of Poulenc’s last years, Prokofiev.

This program, a generous 75 minutes of marvelously crafted, spirited music, is played with an admirable combination of dash, soulfulness and polish by the Paris Conservatory and French National orchestras under conductor Pretre, whose Poulenc is a rather more biting, “modern” composer than the one projected by Conlon.

Andre Jolivet and Henri Tomasi, approximate contemporaries of Poulenc’s, have not gained anywhere near his international renown. Neither had his melodic gift, wit--or desire to please. But both wrote clever virtuoso display pieces that might have been specifically intended for the young American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (CBS 42096, LP or CD).

Jolivet’s Concertino (1948) and Second Trumpet Concerto (1954) find jazz and blues elements coexisting with the motor-rhythms of Stravinsky. But where Poulenc’s eclecticism results in an identifiable personal style, Jolivet’s succeeds only in sounding like anonymous pastiche.

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Tomasi, on present evidence a lower-key showman, has written in his 1949 Trumpet Concerto a work of neoclassical--i.e., 1930s Stravinsky--leanings that in its finale breaks out into what the present recording’s annotator aptly describes as “cartoon music” (think about Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote at their most frenetic).

Musically, we may not have anything of lasting value here. Yet there is no denying the vivacity, the gleeful technical aplomb of trumpeter Marsalis, whose coloristic range and pronounced vibrato were made to order for French music. The polished, alert accompaniments are provided by London’s Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.


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