JWR Articles: CD - Francis Poulenc: Music for Piano (Featured artist: Aleck Karis) - August 23, 2017
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Francis Poulenc: Music for Piano

4.5 4.5
64 min.

BRIDGE 9459
A fascinating journey over four decades

The album lifts off with an ideal choice of “Where to begin?” Written in the same year as I “began,” Intermède offers a two-and-one-half minute overview of the composer’s approach to his art. Saucy at times, rhythmically driven, bass lines that take no prisoners sets the stage. Then, a few moments of soothing lyricism show the composer’s gentler side with distinction. And just when you might think the movement is done, there’s a signature flurry in the adieu. Newcomers will be craving more; the rest of us can only admire. It is clear from the first measure that Aleck Karis is a passionate and worthy tour guide for the various works yet to come.

Thème Varié, from 1951, is a concise, at times fanciful, exploration of an original theme that is infused with thoughtful, calm and liquid melodic line with just a wee hint of jazz to add an element of spice.

Along the journey there is electrifying business, followed by a decidedly broader feel punctuated by dotted rhythms—noble indeed—then a readily flowing stream, employing just a touch of push and pull.

Musical sarcasm is difficult to pull off, but this brief excursion most certainly says, “Oh yeah?” Next comes some “relaxo” which, nonetheless features a forward-thinking direction. It is beautifully voiced.

After an engaging spot of fun, the mood turns decidedly darker and mournful, causing a thought to surface: “What could have been?” Catch me if you can shows the playful side of composer and pianist alike; then there’s energy to burn even as bits of silence add to the effect.

“Sybilline” is a study in painful declamation, with definite undertones of love lost.

The two-minute Finale offers hope for the future along with morsels from the past. A few dry “sticks” usher in the drive to the double bar. Not surprisingly, it takes Poulenc incredible imagination to bring this set to a convincing end.

The earliest music on this disc, Trois Mouvements Perpétuels, is notable for the desire on the composer’s part to test the compositional waters. Assez modéré exudes a simple jauntiness with some bold harmonic surprises and a taste of the Orient. A few bells briefly ring and by journey’s end this ever-moving train of sound gradually slows to a halt.

The second movement (Très modéré (indifférent)) is an excursion in contrary motion with frequent measures of introspection, at times ethereal. The finish is as inventive as it is satisfying.

Happiness, confidence and joy abound in Alerte, balanced by quiet reflection. When the ever-engaging commotion finally disappears into the night, there’s just one question left hanging. Karis deftly mines all of the nuances and Poulenc shows that—even at 19 years of age—he has something to say that is worth hearing.

The improvisation waltz based on the musical rendering of B-A-C-H is an easygoing couple of minutes that readily sets the stage for the following, more extended work. Towards the end, there is a notably forceful bass line fuelling the tension right to the double bar.

In the spirit of these 15 improvisations, I have improvised my own thoughts as the music was heard:

  1. Joyfully dashing about the keyboard
  2. A much calmer, animated life; hints of Haydn
  3. Presto: dry as a martini and equally tasteful along with a contrasting olive
  4. This presto exudes strong confidence and straightforward heat
  5. Somewhat unsettled, the syncopation adds much to the aura of mystery
  6. Crying out for a choreographer, such is the variety of textures and tones marvellously realized by Karis
  7. Gently flowing music box, makes a fine sorbet; memorable adieu
  8. Somewhere, Chopin is smiling
  9. Rather impatient lines that demand a proper hearing: wish fulfilled!
  10. Here’s a new meaning to scaling artistic heights
  11. The shortest of the lot still has a point to make
  12. A Schubertiade, which well knows its Viennese roots
  13. The perfect tonic to the previous waltz; much passion is shared with welcome touches of blue
  14. An irresistible tone of childlike innocence; kindles many fond memories
  15. Marvellous testament to one of the finest chanteuses yet known; this one cries out to be sung

From 1934, Badinage combines celebratory exuberance with unabashed lyricism. It’s a heady mix—bound to bring a smile even to the most surly amongst us. Whereas Mélancolie overflows with heartfelt angst, so unsure just where to go but, nonetheless, determined to try. Karis shows his mastery of discreet ebb and flow.

The closing works, spanning ten years (1918-28) artfully sum up the composer to a T.

Pastorale is imbued with an enchanting mysticism and distinct echoes of Stravinsky. Hymne has power to burn and savour; a somewhat austere homage to Beethoven’s dotted rhythms. There’s welcome contrast which furthers hope for a solution to…? Then another, calmer, route is attempted only to further muddy the waters before a return to strength ends the unfolding drama. The closing Toccata to these 37 morsels is chock-a-block full of joie de vivre. Santé! Karis handles it all with aplomb. JWR

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Featured artist - Aleck Karis
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