With few exceptions, Poulenc’s piano music is so seldom programmed that hearing a representative selection almost seems a discovery. The self-effacing composer may himself have been partly responsible for the neglect. He famously declared that only in his songs did he become inventive at the keyboard, while solo piano music eluded him. Fortunately the enduring quality of his music for other media piques the curiosity of pianists now and then, and we’re reminded that Poulenc’s self-assessment was too modest. This is amply demonstrated in this July 2014 Wigmore Hall recital by the Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski, for which a well-chosen bouquet of Poulenc serves as highlight and culmination.
These are miniatures – the longest, Hommage à Edith Piaf, clocks in at a little over three minutes – which never overstay their welcome. Trpčeski brings a cheerful nonchalance to the ingratiating first Novelette, while the relaxed, slightly louche first Improvisation conjures up a chic cocktail lounge. He clearly revels in the concluding Toccata, the most pianistically resourceful of the lot, with its sly winks in the direction of Prokofiev. The overall impression is of freshness and wit, leaving one to ponder why we don’t hear this music more often.
If marginally less idiomatic, Trpčeski’s Valses nobles et sentimentales have much to recommend them. Ravel aficionados may be accustomed to subtler shading overall and the Vif movement could be more beguiling with a lighter touch. But whether capturing evanescent wistfulness, unselfconscious frolic or the heady intoxication of the dance, Trpčeski imbues these Valses with an unmistakably Parisian air.
All the more perplexing, then, to encounter the Brahms pieces, here cast as the hearty German main course before Ravel’s palate-cleansing dances and Poulenc’s sophisticated, urbane conversation over coffee and dessert. The three Op 117 Intermezzos are taken at such glacially slow tempi that they seem dead on arrival. This is not a matter of actual speed, of course, but of the ability to maintain the line, whatever the underlying pulse. This Trpčeski fails to do, and the first Intermezzo in particular crawls from beat to lethargic beat.
Finally arriving at the Handel Variations, it’s difficult to escape the impression of a loosely connected series of self-contained vignettes, resembling Pictures at an Exhibition or perhaps Carnaval, in place of Brahms’s taut, integrated progression of 25 unfolding transfigurations of Handel. Deprived of a Schenkerian ‘Urlinie’, proceedings grind to a halt at the end of each variation, requiring a reboot for the next.
For the Brahms Op 117 Intermezzos, I know of no more beautiful recording than that of Maria João Pires. One classic recording of the Handel Variations is by Egon Petri, and more recent sterling performances are those by Leon McCawley and Jonathan Plowright.