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Francis Poulenc - 15 Improvisations, X-XV

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Published on Jan 16, 2011

Improvisations (15) for piano, FP 63, 113, 170, 176 (1959)

I. No. 1 in B minor
II. No. 2 in A flat major
III. No. 3 in B minor
IV. No. 4 in A flat major
V. No. 5 in A minor
VI. No. 6 in B flat major
VII. No. 7 in C major
VIII. No. 8 in A minor
IX. No. 9 in D major
X. No. 10 in F major (Eloge des gammes)
XI. No. 11 in G minor
XII. No. 12 in B flat major (Hommage à Schubert)
XIII. No. 13 in A minor
XIV. No. 14 in D flat major
XV. No. 15 in C minor (Hommage à Edith Piaf)

Gabriel Tacchino, piano

As a gifted performer as well as a composer, Francis Poulenc questioned his own ability to compose with his mind rather than his hands. "Many of my pieces have failed," suggests the composer, "because I know too well how to write for the piano ... as soon as I begin writing piano accompaniments for my songs, I begin to be innovative. Similarly, my piano writing with orchestra or chamber ensemble is of a different order. It is the solo piano that somehow escapes me. With it I am a victim of false pretenses." And while he had rather harsh opinions of some of his own works (" ... I condemn without reprieve Napoli and the Soirées de Nazelles ... "), his set of fifteen Improvisations composed between 1932-1959 still met with his approval as the composer looked back on them later in life.

The first piece in the group, set in B minor, outlines a standard ABA form. However, the most striking difference between the A and B sections is not the thematic content itself, but rather the relative lucidity or obscurity of the same. The melody of the A section flits, stops, and starts, its florid contours outlining a series of graceful but unintelligible glyphs. The middle section, on the other hand, waxes rhapsodic, and the virtuosic surges string together clearly defined melodic points. A similar relationship is found in the next two improvisations--a clean and lyrical waltz with few great surprises (save the screwy little "uh-oh" figure at the end) followed by a meandering march that bumbles along with a kind of haphazard chromaticism that has reminded some observers of Prokofiev.

The virtuoso performer in Poulenc asserts himself in No. 4, a Chopinesque scene that on the page stretches itself across three staves. No. 5, on the other hand, is a chromatic exegesis of a single rhythmic idea. The peppy little march that comprises No. 6 once again suggests the influence of Prokofiev. Perhaps the wry humor found in some of the other pieces makes the warmth and earnestness of the seventh Improvisation all the more striking. It begins and ends with a plaintive melody set afloat on a flowing figural accompaniment. The stable harmony lends to the melody an added measure of serenity, which is questioned only briefly by the chromatic queries in the middle section.

No. 8 is described by scholar Keith Daniel as an "impish presto"; nine is a perfunctory barrage of gesture, while ten once again wavers between melodic line and accompaniment figuration. The fleeting eleventh Improvisation (lasting only twenty-one measures) precedes a waltz subtitled "Hommage à Schubert." No. 13 utilizes broad arpeggiation and extensive pedal to create rich, resonant harmonies. No. 14 is likewise characterized by extended harmonies, graced occasionally by characteristically Poulencian detours. The final Improvisation, dedicated to popular singer Edith Piaf, has the flavor of cabaret music.

Perhaps Poulenc favored these works because of their concision and directness. Because no idea in such a context will ever be fully "worked out" in the traditional sense, each improvisation centers on pure content rather than process, on idea rather than delivery. Still, when the performer and composer are (initially, anyway) one and the same, there is only a thin line between the abstract and the kinetic, or the instantaneous thought and its immediate instrumental execution. One wonders if the elementary language with which the composer/performer's mind speaks to itself is the same one with which the fingers communicate with the instrument.

[All quotes as cited in Keith W. Daniel, Francis Poulenc: His Artistic Development and Musical Style (Ann Arbor: UMI), p. 163 ff.] [Allmusic.com]

Art by Berthe Morisot

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