Rare Poulenc Precedes an Old (and Chatty) Friend

United StatesUnited States Poulenc, Rachmaninoff: Jory Vinokour (harpsichord), Cleveland Orchestra / Stéphane Denève (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 25.03.2018 (MSJ)

Poulenc – Pastoral Concerto (Concert champêtre)

Rachmaninoff – Symphony No.2 in E minor Op.27

Kudos to the Cleveland Orchestra for finding major pieces that have slipped through the cracks and never been performed here previously. This program saw the belated premiere of Francis Poulenc’s endearing — and at times, slightly daft — Concert champêtre (or ‘Pastoral Concerto’, now that the orchestra is translating most titles into English). And to make it a double delight of freshness, this was also the Cleveland Orchestra debut of harpsichordist Jory Vinokour.

Poulenc was known in his youth for the wit and mischief of his music, but the Concert champêtre (1927-8) signals a shift. Here, while the playfulness remains prominent, sudden and breathtaking interruptions of contemplation and spirituality begin to play a major role. Vinokour, playing a discreetly amplified Dowd harpsichord, alertly inhabited each sudden new world, rollicking speedily as if it were the soundtrack for a cartoon about aesthetes engaged in a wrestling match, then without transition dropping into ecstatic musings. Vinokour was matched every step of the way by conductor Stephane Denève, who relished Poulenc’s crisp scoring. As an encore, Vinokour gave a spirited, risky romp through Scarlatti’s Sonata in D, K.96.

No greater contrast could be imagined between the droll Poulenc concerto and the voluptuously brooding Rachmaninoff Symphony No.2. The orchestra has a long history with the work, stretching back to its first recording in 1928, led by founding music director Nikolai Sokoloff. The Sokoloff recording has recently been issued, lovingly restored by Pristine Audio in France, and demonstrates that the orchestra was a great one even before the onset of Artur Rodzinski and George Szell.

But it also provokes a question of musical ethics. In 1928, over twenty years after the composition of this symphony, Rachmaninoff consulted with Sokoloff about making some judicious edits, commenting that perhaps he had been a little too effusive in his youth. These cuts removed about ten minutes from the work, streamlining its discursive argument. In the 1970s, buoyed by a wave of academic study of original manuscripts, conductors began opening up the cuts and performing the symphony at full length, sometimes with repeats that pushed its running time to over an hour.

To the best of my knowledge, Rachmaninoff never asked for the work to be restored to its original wordiness. Is it right to perform it that way now when the composer decided it needed some pruning? Let’s face it, Rachmaninoff was no Bruckner, whose original scores did need rescuing from pushy enthusiasts who rearranged and ‘corrected’ his scores almost without exception. Bruckner was starved for an audience and willing to make concessions to get a hearing. Rachmaninoff was a much more successful composer, making the cuts of his own volition, though perhaps eying the running time of 78-rpm records.

Denève chose to go with the full score, and his performance was very, very good, full of overflowing heart and with a rich sense of color. But the conductor threw himself into each sumptuous passage so enthusiastically, that the succession of sumptuous passages became exhausting after a while. I suspect that Denève might make an outstanding version of the edited score, but as affecting as it was, his passion was just a little too indulgent to bring off the full-length version without fatigue. For a performance of the complete score that never for a moment felt too long, one has only to look back to last summer at the Blossom Music Festival, where the Cleveland Orchestra played a more focused rendition under Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko.

There is no question that Denève is an important conductor, one who leads with more heart than most of his colleagues. His commitment made for an emotional reading, and that deserves plenty of praise in this jaded world. I wonder, though, if the edited version of this score would benefit from his approach even more, helping those of us who sometimes get a little worn down by Rachmaninoff’s youthful excesses.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

1 thought on “Rare Poulenc Precedes an Old (and Chatty) Friend”

  1. You illuminate music with your gift of words in a way that makes each piece more real in time and context. Thanks as always for bringing to mind the composers, their struggles, and the performers who embody these abstractions. I love your work too.


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