POULENC:  Piano Concerto.  Concert champÍtre. Concerto in G Minor for organ, strings and timpani.
Jean-Bernard Pommier, pianist; Maggie Cole, harpsichord; Gillian Weir, organ
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox, cond.
VIRGIN 61979 (M) (DDD) TT:  69:22


POULENC:  Concerto in G Minor for organ, strings and timpani. Concert ChampÍtre. Suite franÁaise.
Philippe Lefebvre, organist; Elisabeth Chojnacka, harpsichordist; Orchestre National de Lille/Jean-Claude Casadesus, cond.
NAXOS 8.554241(B) (DDD) TT:  58:56

The Virgin CD, a mid-price reissue of recordings made 1988, is of particular interest for the organ concerto performed on the massive instrument in Royal Festival Hall in England.  This is a huge sound yet the engineering, through judicious miking, doesn't let the organ overpower strings, and the important timpani are always clear and impactful.  Concert ChampÍtre is not as successful soundwise. Written for Wanda Landowska who premiered it in 1929 in Paris with Pierre Monteux on the podium, the work is awkward for balance reasons.  Perhaps Poulenc was being jestful; he must have know the delicate sounds of the instrument really cannot cope with an orchestra that includes four French horns, two trumpets, trombone, tuba, double woodwinds and three timpani.  Charles Gerhardt told me many years ago he attended a New York Philharmonic concert with this work played by Landowska with Leopold Stokowski conducting.  Gerhardt said it really was rather bizarre -- and Landowska, even though playing her huge Pleyel harpsichord, was virtually inaudible except in solo passages.  (A broadcast from Nov. 19, 1949 is available on Music & Arts 4821, a set that also contains Handel's Concerto in B Flat from the same concert).  Pommier's elegant performance of the 1949 piano concerto is diminished by overly resonant acoustics.

Naxos' recording was released about two years ago and offers two exemplary performances.  The organ concerto was recorded live in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris April 11, 1997 with Philippe Lefebvre as insightful soloist. The enormous instrument produces striking reed sounds as well as thundering low notes.  It is to the credit of the engineering team that this monster organ doesn't overpower strings and timpani.  The harpsichord concerto is equally successful.  Chojnacka plays a harpsichord specially built for her, obviously modeled after Landowska's equally impressive instrument. With judicious engineering there's no problem of balance, all details of the delectable, witty  performance clearly heard.  Suite franÁaise is an appropriate filler but finds the Lille orchestra not at its best, with a few trumpet notes that should have been redone.  However, the CD is well worth having just for the concertos, and highly recommended - particularly at its budget price.

If you are a connoisseur of Poulenc's organ concerto you should also investigate the Chandos recording with Ian Tracey recorded in Liverpool Cathedral with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier (9271).  The engineers obviously have microphones very close to the timpani resulting in an almost surrealistic sonic picture, a huge mass of decibles -- audiophiles will love it, but it isn't very musical.  Let us hope BMG will reissue the dynamic 1960 recording with Berj Zamkochian and Charles Munch conducting the Boston SO. How tragic for collectors that the magnificent recent Japanese CD remastering of the Munch/BSO "organ" symphony of Saint-Saëns didn't also include the Poulenc (and perhaps even Franck's Le Chasseur Maudit) both of which were on the RCA CD issue of the late '80s (RCA 5750).

R.E.B.  (March 2002)