DEBUSSY, POULENC, RAVEL, AND FRANCAIX: PIANO CONCERTOS
Florian Uhlig (pn); Pablo González, cond; Deutsche RP
HÄNSSLER 93.302 (71: 08)
for Piano and Orchestra.
Piano Concerto in G
This program demonstrates a number of stylistic cycles within 20th-century French music. Debussy’s early
was influenced by the lyrical muse of his teacher Massenet, an influence he eventually rejected. That work (and several others) sowed the seeds of the musical “Impressionism” that came to define Debussy and Ravel in the pre-World War I years—much as those two composers despised the term. Their style was then rejected by Les Six, who opted for a sharper, more brittle sound, typified in the slightly younger Jean Françaix’s
of 1934. Ravel himself seemed to adopt the Les Six aesthetic in his late Piano Concerto, and finally, in Poulenc’s concerto of 1950, the now mature member of Les Six reverted to a sentimental lyricism reminiscent of... Massenet. What goes around comes around, as they say.
These popular works have been recorded often. While there is a great deal of dazzling competition, the new collection also demands its place in the sun. One of its assets is the rapport between the two 30-something musicians: German pianist Florian Uhlig and Spanish conductor Pablo González. They share a common approach to this music that could generally be described as robust. While this suits the smart little Françaix
admirably, it pays exceptional dividends in Debussy’s
. Never have I heard this work given with such sweep and passion. No sentimentality or wan water lilies here: the piece, which can sometimes come across as pallid, is here bristling with color. The concerto was contemporaneous with Debussy’s
, and spring is certainly in the air in this exhilarating performance.
Uhlig and González give an equally fine rendition of the Poulenc concerto. Admittedly, this work does not need a strong interpretative stance to succeed, but the performers are clearly sympathetic. González broadens the second movement’s lyrical theme beautifully when it is taken up by the orchestral strings, and both performers recognize the subtly Gallic nostalgia behind the third movement’s high spirits. Poulenc quotes Stephen Foster’s
Old Folks at Home
in this movement, supposedly as a nod to America since the Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned the work, yet by slightly varying the rhythm he succeeds in making the theme sound French. (It sounds like Poulenc, in fact.) It is also good to hear a sophisticated orchestral blend in this concerto—something older French recordings lacked, for all their idiosyncratic personality.
When it comes to the Ravel G-Major Piano Concerto it would be surprising if Uhlig matched the best of his competitors, and he doesn’t. It is an excellent performance with the same rapport in evidence, but like some other young pianists who have recorded this piece (notably Benjamin Grosvenor) Uhlig fails to achieve the dreamy, inward quality that makes the second movement so mesmerizing. Technically, his trill—such a crucial feature of the first and second movements—is neither as evenly produced nor as well sustained as those by Frank Peter Zimmerman, Argerich, or Thibaudet. I would still opt for their recordings as the ones to have, along with the now historic Michaelangeli and Katchen. At least Uhlig and González treat the final movement as a divertissement and not a hectic race to the finish line (Grosvenor again).
This disc is thoroughly recommended, especially for the Debussy which is outstanding. Such joyous music making demands a place in our lives.