The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical Music: As summer turns to fall, You Must Hear This 2: Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos

August 29, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Thursday night, I had a most enjoyable experience, almost Proustian in its ability to summon up recollections and emotions from other, earlier years.

I was at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival for an outstanding recital of music for two pianos by Debussy, Stravinsky, Lutoslawski, Poulenc and John Harbison. The music was performed by Harvard scholar and musicologist Robert Levin and his wife Ya-fei Chuang (below). They played expressively and virtuosically, with great clarity of line, voicing and counterpoint.

Each piece was introduced by festival co-director and prize-winning composer John Harbison.

Besides being a fine composer and a pretty good instrumentalist on keyboard and viola, Harbison is master explainer. He teaches at MIT, and what I wouldn’t give to sit in on one of his classes or seminars.

Each time Harbison takes to the stage at Token Creek, (below) and explains a composer, you feel like you are on the inside of the creative process looking out rather than sitting on the outside looking on. You get a deeper understanding in two or three minutes of him than from an hour-long lecture by most others. But then it makes sense that a composer has special insight into other composers.

Such was the case as Harbison concisely explained the differences and similarities between Igor Stravinsky and Francis Poulenc. He cut right to the core and discussed Poulenc’s boundless admiration for Stravinsky — one imagines especially for the Neo-Classical Stravinsky since Poulenc himself so often sounds like Mozart with such clarity combined with such poignancy.

But then Harbison talked about how Poulenc (below) “wanted to be understood” while Stravinsky “wanted to be heard”; and about how Poulenc alternated a Stravinsky-like objectivity or coolness with a warmth and tenderness, a deep longing and desire that you do not find in Stravinsky. (One wonders: Does it have to do with Poulenc’s homosexuality, without which, he once remarked, he could not be a composer? Could it have something to do with his devout Catholicism combined with his unabashed gayness?)

Harbison also talked about Poulenc’s genuine love of vernacular music and popular culture that Stravinsky generally avoided except for a few Russian folk songs.

It all brought to mind my favorite moments of Poulenc, who is also my favorite summer composer since so much of his music possesses a certain French lightness and transparency that I identify with bright sun and warm days. How Poulenc could combine and fuse the old with the new! And how he could create bittersweetness! How he balanced the objective and the subjective, the impersonal and the human! Poulenc seems both so French and so universal.

So here it is: YOU MUST HEAR THIS NO. 2:

It is Poulenc himself playing one of the parts in the slow movement of his fabulous Concerto for Two Pianos.

I offer as an homage to the festival concert, as thanks and as an invitation to explore more modernly Mozartean music by Poulenc, who The Ear thinks is not performed or heard nearly enough:

What do you think of this piece and of Poulenc in general?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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