DEBUSSY, POULENC, RAVEL & FRANCAIX: Piano Concertos – Florian Uhlig, piano/ Deutsche Radio Philharmonie /Pablo González – Hänssler Classic CD 93.302, 71:08 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Cosmopolitan pianist Florian Uhlig has assembled a tempting survey of French piano concertos. Uhlig, who was born in Düsseldorf in 1974, has lived in London since 1995, the British way more to his liking. This early relocation plus heavy worldwide concertizing has produced a musician of particular skill and insight.
As a German pianist, he does not follow in the footsteps of previous generations of austere, intellectualizing pianists. Instead, the technically brilliant Uhlig has a clear understanding of this “French” music.
Uhlig opens with the rarely heard Fantasie pour piano et orchestre (1889-90) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Cyclical in nature, the Fantasie is in three movements, following the structure of a traditional concerto. Why this refreshing work has been marginalized is a mystery.
After Debussy won the Prix de Rome in 1884 and as a requirement of the Prix, he composed the Fantasie as an envoi de Rome to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Since he did not provide a required overture, a prizewinner concert of his works was canceled. The premiere of the work was planned for a concert to be conducted by Vincent d’Indy. Since there were eight other works scheduled, d’Indy chose to play only the first movement. After the concert, Debussy collected the scores and vanished. Debussy repeatedly made changes to the Fantasie, but it was never performed in his lifetime. Its premiere took place in 1920. Uhlig’s performance is based on the 2007 Durand critical edition.
Jean Francaix (1912-1997) composed over 200 scores. He was a pianist, composer and orchestrator. When he was ten years old he was given lessons in counterpoint by Nadia Boulanger. She considered that he already knew harmony. At the age of 20, Francaix composed his first major work, the Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (1932). It was premiered in Paris in 1934 to great acclaim. In its sophistication and refinement, this work shows Francaix’s musical intelligence.
The Piano Concerto of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) is another entertaining work. Poulenc was a member of the “Groupe des Six” which included Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and Germaine Tailleferre. In French musical composition, they were against the heaviness of Richard Wagner as well as the Claude Debussy/Maurice Ravel Impressionism in music.
Poulenc wrote serious religious music and dance-like music among other genres. Somehow, he managed to work both into his Piano Concerto (1949) which makes the composition attractive and appealing. Uhlig has the correct touch for this work and the Francaix.
The final offering on this disc is Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major (1929-1931). This score of Ravel (1875-1937) is the most substantial piano concerto in this collection. Its guideposts are Mozart and Saint-Saëns. Incorporating influences of jazz and Spanish music, the result is as fresh and enticing as it was when it was first performed in 1932.
Uhlig might not satisfy all French tastes. Those who are more catholic in their musical partiality will find that Uhlig, the orchestra and conductor González have delivered a top-notch release. Collectors may already have one or more of these concertos on other recordings, some of which they may find superior to these performances by Uhlig. However, having them together on one disc is certainly worth consideration. Hänssler Classic deserves praise for its sound quality which is close to state-of-the-art. The booklet in the jewel box has program notes in German and English.