Picture credit: Bettmann/Getty

The light and the insubstantial

Poulenc and others: Chamber music (Calliope/DG)

Lebrecht's Album of the Week


I can’t listen to Francis Poulenc for long without imagining a Gitane between my lips and smoke curling out of the corners. There’s a picture of him on the cover of this album, titled “The Ways of Love”, which shows a man in full-throated laughter, contented with his lot.

The music performed here is from the 1940s, not the happiest of decades, but Poulenc was adept at shutting out headline news. A devout Roman Catholic and untormented homosexual, he wrote three operas and a ballet but little else on a grand scale — no symphony or concerto, unless you count a glompy thing for organ, timpani and strings dated 1939.

Here he engages in confidential conversation between violin and piano, cello and piano, and something called a “pipeau”, which calls to mind a medical laboratory. Nowhere does Poulenc harbour dark thoughts. The players – violinist Tatiana Samuil, cellist Justus Grimm and pianist David Lively — keep it light and wistful. The titular “Chemins de l’Amour” is a song Poulenc wrote for an Yvonne Printemps show in December. Who would know Paris was under German occupation? Poulenc kept his window shut.

The Chinese pianist Lang Lang, in his latest release, couples an unremarkable concert recording of the Saint-Saens second concerto with an assortment of bon-bons by various French composers, Poulenc notably absent among them. Lang Lang speaks little French, and it shows. 

His reading of the Ravel Pavane has a uniformity of touch that rules out emotional subtlety. What you get is large gestures and little fantasy. A Debussy suite, played with his wife Gina Alice, is louder but no better at evoking deep feeling. From there it’s all downhill, through Fauré, Delibes, Louise Farrenc, Lily Boulanger, Tailleferre and more (or even less). 

Lang Lang is right now in that moral minefield known as mid-career. He knows how he got in but has no clue where to move forward. This album is a compass failure on an industrial scale. No matter: You will hear these tracks in hotel elevators for the rest of your life. Lang Lang is the Muzak of our times.

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