Christmas is traditionally the time for exchanging gifts and I was very happy to see my CD collection grow with almost 30 units. One of the surprises was a 5-CD box with re-issued recordings of a significant selection of Francis Poulenc's orchestral works, featuring Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre Nationale de France (and the Philharmonia for one of the discs).
I picked out the music for the ballet Les Biches, which I have been listening to for years on a Chandos recording with Yan Pascal Tortelier. The music was commissioned by Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes in 1924 and put Poulenc on the map. The work is inspired by paintings of Watteau that depict Louis XV and his various mistresses dallying in his Parc aux Cerfs (hence 'biches') at Versailles. This five-movement suite is Poulenc at his jocular best: neoclassical poise married to lighthearted, tongue-in-cheeck and at times somewhat abrasive humour. Dutoit's reading is cheerful and bubbly as it should be, and the ONF is in good form. Very agreeable.
The other piece I selected from this box is the Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani. The work dates from 1938 and strikes a more mature and reflective pose than the ballet. In fact, its composition coincided with Poulenc's visit to the Black Virgin at Rocamadour (quite close to where we are here in the Lot-et-Garonne) which initiated a dramatic rediscovery of his Christian faith and hence constituted a turning point in his biography. For Poulenc, the Organ Concerto belonged to the group of religously inspired works - including the Gloria and the Stabat Mater - that he would continue to elaborate later in life.
I had all but forgotten about this work but as soon as I started to listen, it struck me as very familiar. Browsing through my dad's music collection I found a recording with Michael Murray at the keyboard accompanied by Robert Shaw and his Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. It's an early Telarc recording from 1982. This must have been the CD that I have been listening to in the early days. I can't really recall having come across any other version.
This rediscovery, via the Decca recording (with Dutoit/Philharmonia/Peter Hurford), was very pleasurable indeed as it's a great and somewhat wayward work that deserves regular auditioning. It's cast in a single movement that connects seven contrasting sections. There is a little bit of everything: the 'soccer playing friars' (cfr the Gloria) are rubbing shoulders with a deeply contemplative atmosphere that harks back to the Baroque era. There is place for the late Romantic monumental (à la Vierne or Widor) too. As said the Dutoit reading provided considerable listening pleasure but to my mind it pales in comparison with the more deeply felt and spiritual rendering by Shaw and Murray. Again we are dealing here with one of those beautifully layered and finely chiseled Soundstream recordings that illuminate the work's somewhat opaque textures from within. Compared to Shaw, Dutoit sounds positively rushed. I think the more measured approach works better when it comes to giving the listener a feel for the intricacies of this complex score. The organ in Atlanta's Cathedral of Saint Philip, an Aeolian-Skinner instrument built in 1962, produces a wonderfully translucent sound. Again this compares favourably with the more massive voice of the organ in the cathedral of St Albans, just north of London (the organ has been completele restored in recent years; the recording dates, however, from 1993). All in all a work I would like to revisit soon.