About the album
POULENC, PROPHET OF IMMEDIACY
Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) is not an easy composer to relate to. Not the man himself perhaps – though possibly that too – but his music. It is somehow dated. Here is a composer who produced his best works, all more or less completely tonal, at a time when Arnold Schoenberg was writing twelve-tone music and Poulenc’s countrymen Oliver Messiaen (1908–1992) and Pierre Boulez (1925–2016) were into innovative rhythms, scales and techniques to lift the music out of the realm of subjective emotionalism. One of Poulenc’s most splendid works, Gloria, from 1959, was composed two years after Boulez’s third piano sonata. The two works have nothing in common other than that they both consist of notes and belong to what is called the European music tradition. What’s more, I am reasonably certain that Gloria has many more listeners than the third piano sonata of Boulez, quite simply because this melodious choral work is more accessible.
And accessible was what Poulenc wanted to be. One composer he looked to as a source of inspiration was Stravinsky, especially his neoclassical works from the 1920s. Here we are talking about pieces such as Pulcinella and The Fairy’s Kiss, as well as his Octet for Wind Instruments. Poulenc has been quoted as saying that if not for Stravinsky, he might not have been a composer at all. An exaggeration to be sure, but the similarities are apparent. Both can be called neoclassicists in the sense that they adopted baroque and classical forms with clear linearity in the melody and a lucid form with an underlying tonality. But Stravinsky composed his neoclassical works in quotation marks, as the Danish music critic Hansgeorg Lenz put it. By this he meant that Stravinsky was, stylistically speaking, extremely self-assured. He played with his forms and shunned personal expression, even though we hear it is Stravinsky, no matter which compositional mask he dons. In one way or another, Poulenc is there too, but only in part. Both break with the pathos of Romantic music, with its fervor and self-expression. Yet, while Stravinsky’s style is the manifestation of a strong will — i.e. he laid bare the distance between the forms he used and the actual sound of the compositions — this distance is more difficult to discern in Poulenc. He composed largely without a mask, without distance. He became a kind of prophet of immediacy. In a way he simply wished to entertain, and now and then to shock, something most composers wanted to do in 1920s Paris. And he was at this time also one of a group of young composers known collectively as “Les Six”, for whom the French poet, filmmaker and playwright Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) was something of an ideologue and Erik Satie (1866–1925) a kind of father figure. In his book Le Coq et l’Arlequin (1918), Cocteau criticizes, among other things, the melancholy of German music (Beethoven, Wagner) and asserts that the plain and simple is concentrated complexity, i.e. depth. This fits much of Poulenc’s music with its distinct melodies, formal clarity, and not so very complicated harmonies. Poulenc emphasized that he was not a harmonic innovator; neither was he, as he said, afraid to “use other people’s chords.” This clarity of form and expression can also be found in a number of the choral works, written after Poulenc had converted back to Catholicism in the mid-1930s. Here, for example, I am thinking of the Mass in G Major (1937), Figure humaine (1943) and Stabat Mater (1950). To these can be added his operatic masterpiece, Dialogues des carmélites (1956). These are works that engage us at a deeper level than his instrumental pieces, which are often much more garrulous and concertizing. Something revealed, to a great degree, on this release.
If we include Aubade (1929) for piano and eighteen instruments, Poulenc can be said to have composed five concertos. If, however, we ignore the aforementioned Aubade, and, likewise, Concert campêtre (1928) for harpsichord and orchestra, those that are left can be found on this album. Among them, the Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani (1938) is considered to be the most popular of the three, and, perhaps, the most serious. It has different qualities from, for example, the piano concerto. As the composer himself joked, it showed “a Poulenc on his way to joining a monastery.” Is it perhaps a kind of Te Deum without text? In any case, Poulenc counted it among his religious works, and regarded it as one of the most important. And because he wanted to use the organ for all it was worth, he listened to many organists in Paris, especially Marcel Dupré. Poulenc’s concerto was premiered by another authority within the French organ school, Maurice Duruflé, who also helped Poulenc with the registration. For Poulenc wanted musical punch and nuance from this instrument, which is an orchestra unto itself. At the same time, he broke with the classical three-movement structure of the other two concertos on this album. The organ concerto is divided into seven parts, which blend into each other. In that respect, it resembles the multi-movement Aubade, but with more baroque associations. Music historian Paul Griffiths wonders whether the gravity of the organ concerto is explored as a possible mode of expression, or whether the seriousness is genuinely intended. Difficult to say, of course, but is it perhaps precisely this ambivalence that gives the work its strength? There are some slow passages here, more meditative, with elements of chromaticism, while others, such as the “main theme” itself, Allegro giocoso, are much more expressive and virtuosic. The concerto achieves this effect of doubleness through its brilliant, concertizing form.
The Piano Concerto (1949) in three movements differs somewhat in its range of expression. There is not much ambivalence to speak of. The concerto was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with Poulenc himself as soloist. He decided to compose a “light concerto, a souvenir from Paris for a composer-pianist”, hence, for himself. And light it is, and a wellspring of musical ideas, more or less brutally juxtaposed. Here we have striking melodies, as the opening theme in the first movement, or the lyrical theme in the second. But in the middle of the first movement, for example, he turns up the Romantic pomposity, with heavy chords and fiery brass. The last movement is pure concertizing. The piano part is varied, the orchestral movement as well. In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians we read that the concerto “demonstrates the dangers of sectional, ‘surrealist’ techniques of composition.” The observation is correct, but it is also this technique that makes the concerto so witty. There is no compositional consequence. The concerto is not “organic”, which is the opposite of sectional. Everything is simply linked together into the grand display of a concerto.
The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932) lies perhaps somewhere between these two. It was premiered in Venice with the La Scala orchestra, and with Poulenc and his friend, Jacques Février, as soloists. Is this the concerto that comes closest to Stravinsky, i.e. that is music in quotation marks? The American composer Elliott Carter called the concerto “a pastiche consisting of music from Scarlatti, Mozart, Schumann, Charbrier on up to Stravinski and popular singers.” But he thought it sounded convincing on account of “Poulenc’s unbelievable sensitivity to harmonies and orchestral sounds.” Here once more there is no form of thematic development; rather a juxtaposition of different passages. It is perhaps in the slow movement that Poulenc really composes in quotation marks. The movement opens with a stylistic imitation of what almost could have been a slow movement in a piano concerto of Mozart (Romanze in KV 466?), another of Poulenc’s favourite composers, before going its own way, melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. With that, the historic distance is sounded, in purely musical terms. The quotation marks are in place. So, too, the music.
– EGIL BAUMANN
CHRISTIAN IHLE HADLAND – PIANO
The elegant virtuosity of Christian Ihle Hadland (b. 1983) reveals a pianist made for Poulenc’s piano concertos. With a highly refined sense of detail, exquisite sound quality and original interpretations, he continually sheds new light on the old classics. At age fifteen Ihle Hadland appeared as soloist with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra (KORK), and after studying with the legendary Jiri Hlinka and others, he has become one of Norway’s most sought-after pianists. He continues to be invited back to perform with KORK, and in recent years has shone in concertos of Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Stravinsky and others, in addition to Poulenc. Ihle Hadland’s path toward greater international recognition gained momentum in 2011 when he was named a BBC New Generation Artist. He performed as soloist with all the BBC orchestras and appeared as soloist at The Proms. In recent years he has played with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors, and he is a guest performer at festivals in and outside of Norway. He is also currently artistic director for the Stavanger International Chamber Music Festival, a position he shares with Danish cellist Andreas Brantelid. Ihle Hadland has won prizes as soloist and chamber musician, and his recordings have both won and been nominated for Spellemannprisen, Norway’s Grammy.
HÅVARD GIMSE – PIANO
Among Norwegian pianists, Håvard Gimse (b. 1966) is in a class of his own. There are few, if any, who have the same experience and breadth with a corresponding list of achievements as concert musician and recording artist. Gimse has always been known for nuanced and sophisticated interpretations, for putting the smallest musical elements in their proper place in large musical structures, in addition to having an elegant concertizing style (well suited to a composer like Poulenc). Gimse has a strong affinity for Norwegian and Nordic music and has recorded the complete piano works of Geirr Tveitt and Jean Sibelius (the latter winner of the Sibelius Prize, one of many music prizes he has received over the years). The list is long of orchestras, conductors and musicians Gimse has worked with, and many of his collaborations have taken place while serving as performing artistic director of the Oslo Chamber Music Festival. Gimse is in frequent demand as teacher of master classes in Norway and abroad, and he is presently Professor of Piano at the Norwegian Academy of Music.
KÅRE NORDSTOGA – ORGAN
Kåre Nordstoga (b. 1954) studied at the Norwegian Academy of Music under Søren Gangfløt, Bjørn Boysen, and Kaare Ørnung, among others. Following his debut concert in 1978, he continued his studies under David Sanger in London, and he was for a time organist at Ullern Church, before coming to Oslo Cathedral in 1984. He has also been associated with the Norwegian Academy of Music, where he was appointed professor in 1994. As cathedral organist at Oslo Cathedral, Nordstoga frequently performs a large repertoire, which has included two popular concert series with Bach’s complete organ works. His recordings include the organ music of Bach, Brahms, Franck, Widor, and Liszt, all of Bach’s violin sonatas recorded on the cathedral’s chancel organ in collaboration with violinist Geir Inge Lotsberg, as well as several recordings of Norwegian organ music. Nordstoga is an active concert organist. In recent years he has been soloist with the symphony orchestras of Oslo, Bergen, and Trondheim, and he has been invited to organ festivals abroad, including Aarhus, Notre Dame in Paris, and Musashino Cultural Center in Tokyo. In 2006 he was awarded the Lindeman Prize for his active contribution to musical life.
THOMAS SØNDERGÅRD – CONDUCTOR
The Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård (b. 1969) arrived on the classical music scene as a sensation in 2005 when he conducted the opera “Kafka’s Trial” of his fellow countryman Poul Ruders. Four years later he became Chief Conductor and artistic consultant of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra (2009–2012). He went directly from there to become Chief Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales for six seasons. At the time of writing he is artistic director for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In addition to his positions of leadership during these ten years, he has been a much sought-after conductor for the world’s leading orchestras. With his confident style, breadth of perspective and unfailing sense of detail, he has command of the great symphonic classics, yet he has at the same time been highly successful with the very latest contemporary works (confirmed by earlier Norwegian Radio Orchestra releases on the LAWO Classics label). Dating back as far as his time as timpanist with the Royal Danish Orchestra, Søndergård has had a special fondness for incidental music and opera, and he is in frequent demand as conductor for the leading opera stages, including the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet.
PETER SZILVAY – CONDUCTOR
Peter Szilvay (b. 1971) is known as an energetic and charismatic conductor. He is also one of a growing number of versatile conductors who learned their trade from inside the orchestra. After working as a professional viola player, Szilvay served as Assistant Conductor to Mariss Jansons at the Oslo Philharmonic and later held the same position at the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. He has since conducted a string of illustrious ensembles including the St Petersburg Philharmonic, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Royal Danish Orchestra. In his native Norway, Szilvay has worked with all the Norwegian symphony orchestras, as well as the professional bands and leading contemporary ensembles. Szilvay is an experienced opera conductor and has worked on staples of the German and Italian operatic repertory in Norway and abroad. In 2011, Szilvay was recognized for his work with contemporary music when the Norwegian Society of Com posers awarded him their Artist Prize. He has conducted over 160 premieres and has recorded new Norwegian music with a number of Norway’s leading orchestras and ensembles. Moreover, Szilvay works diligently to ensure that older Norwegian music receives its rightful place in the concert repertory.
NORWEGIAN RADIO ORCHESTRA
The Norwegian Radio Orchestra is known and cherished throughout the land and regarded by music-loving Norwegians with a unique combination of respect and affection. Owing to its remarkably diverse repertoire, it is doubtless the orchestra heard most often – on radio, television, and the internet, and at its many and diverse venues around the country.
It is a flexible orchestra, playing everything from symphonic and contemporary classical music to pop, rock, folk and jazz. Every year the orchestra performs together with internationally acclaimed artists at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert, which is aired to millions of viewers worldwide. Among those with whom it has collaborated in recent years are Kaizers Orchestra, Mari Boine, Jarle Bernhoft, Diamanda Galàs, René Fleming, Andrew Manze, Anna Netrebko, and Gregory Porter.
The Norwegian Radio Orchestra was founded by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation in 1946. Its first conductor, Øivind Bergh, led the ensemble in a series of concerts from the main studio that established the basis of its popularity and its status as a national treasure. The orchestra continues to perform in the context of important media events. It is comprised of highly talented classical instrumentalists, yet its musical philosophy has remained the same: versatility, a lighthearted approach, a curiosity for all kinds of music, and an unwillingness to pigeonhole musical styles. Miguel Harth-Bedoya is