POULENC: Intermède. Thème Varié. Trois Mouvements Perpétuels. Valse-Improvisations sur le Nom de BACH. 15 Improvisations. Badinage. Mélancolie. Trois Pièces / Aleck Karis, pianist / Bridge 9459
Francis Poulenc was one of those composers who, if he did not exist, would have to be invented by some clever writer. Sensitive yet witty, wickedly brilliant yet almost childlike in his humor (he described his Thème Varié as a “serious work, which I hope is not annoying”), able to penetrate the heart while satisfying the intellect, he wove his own way among contemporary French composers over a period of 45 years. Best known for his songs, song cycles, the Gloria and his ballet Les Biches (I refuse to recognize Dialogues of the Carmelites because it is a dreadful piece of rubbish), he is heard here in a series of piano pieces composed between 1918, when he was 19 years old, and 1959.
For lack of a better term, Poulenc’s music is for the most part bucolic. Despite his having been born into and raised by a “good” family class-wise, Poulenc always seemed to gravitate towards an almost French peasant-like form of expression. He completely disdained pretension in all its forms, had a secret passion for what he called “adorable bad music,” and thus brought all this out in his own compositions. He also, for the most part, disliked writing lengthy pieces. If brevity is the soul of wit, Francis Poulenc was the wittiest composer who ever lived, and his humor always had a sophisticated air about it that kept it from being mundane or common.
Pianist Aleck Karis understands all of this, attacking these piano works with both relish and a sense of humor. From a technical standpoint I was a bit unhappy with the recorded sound, much too warm and even a little fuzzy around the edges. I much prefer that Poulenc, like Satie, be played in a crisp manner (which it is) with crystal-clear sound (which this isn’t). But I cannot blame the artist for the sonics; that blame goes to engineer Jonathan Schultz. For his part, Karis is just fine. In his liner notes he reminds us that Poulenc hated exaggerated rubato and tempo shifts: “He often writes reminders not to slow down in places where a self-indulgent performer might be tempted to allow ‘expressivity’ to trump rhythmic pulse and formal coherence,” he writes. This is certainly true. Poulenc constantly wrote such instructions in his scores as “sans nuances,” “sans rubato,” or “play at the exact tempo from first bar to last.”
Karis does mention, however, that his challenge was to “project this highly expressive music through color, tone and voicing,” and this he achieves. The piano tone sometimes dissipates slightly in soft passages, again due to the microphone placement and not to the artist, almost sounding like an old recording from the 78-rpm days that has been processed too much to eliminate noise. But just listen to the way Karis plays the Thème Varié with each of its 11 variants given a specific title to indicate performance interpretation: “Joyous,” “Noble,” “Pastoral,” “Sarcastic,” “Melancholy,” “Ironic,” “Elegiac,” “Voluble,” “Fantastic” and “Syballine” (the last is simply marked “Finale”). There is a certain Claude Bolling feel to the Valse-Improvisation sur le Nom de BACH which sounds like a stroll on the beach—except that Poulenc is changes and shifts the music in the second half in interesting ways. The fifth and sixth of the 15 Improvisations also have something of a Bolling feel to them. I would assume that Poulenc is one of Bolling’s favorite composers. The last of these, titled “Très vite (Hommage à Edith Piaf),” sounds suspiciously like Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances (Strangers in Paradise) theme.
One of the great pleasures of this CD is that the music—like so much of Poulenc’s output—just rolls along across your mind, delighting you as it surprises. Karis does not let his excellent natural impulses towards French music, those moments of delicacy or sensitivity, interfere with the bounce and swagger of the music. The titles and the intent of each piece scarcely matter compared to the sheer joy and rhythmic bounce of the music. It’s a rainy day – sad day – tax filing day kind of disc. It cheers you up as it stimulates your mind. Imagine…modern classical music you can actually enjoy! And Karis’ playing, as I’ve said, is just perfect for each and every piece. His enthusiasm never flags, but carries you along with him as he digs into each piece and has more fun than a human being should be allowed to have.
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley