In my forthcoming chronicle for the magazine, I have a section on Paul Jacobs, the organist, who gave a recital in Philadelphia. Jacobs works in New York, being the chairman of the organ department at the Juilliard School. Here on the blog, I would like to note an appearance he made with the Philadelphia Orchestra: they played the Poulenc Organ Concerto.

That was on April 29, and you can find it here. Three weeks earlier, Jacobs had played the same concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra, here. So April was a pretty good month for Francis Poulenc in the United States. And for the organ.

There were two sides to Poulenc, as people have always noted: profane and sacred, sensual and religious. This dualism was famously summed up by the critic and musicologist Claude Rostande: “moitié moine, moitié voyou,” usually translated as “half monk, half rascal.” The organ concerto finds Poulenc in the mid-1930s, trending religious. The association between religion and the organ is long and clear.

Poulenc’s organ concerto is for strings and timpani (along with the solo instrument, of course). The key is G minor. The concerto is in one movement, although there are sections—movements, if you like—within the one movement. Poulenc gives you seven different tempo markings.

He had never written anything for organ before. To my knowledge, he never wrote anything after. Before writing his concerto, he consulted Baroque masters, chiefly Bach. (Also Buxtehude, whom Bach esteemed.) Poulenc further consulted a contemporary, Maurice Duruflé. Indeed, Duruflé gave the first performance of the concerto, with an orchestra conducted by Nadia Boulanger. I would like to have been a fly on the wall.

In videotaped remarks connected to his performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Paul Jacobs calls the Poulenc concerto “really a masterpiece of the twentieth century.” I’m not sure—but I take Jacobs’s words, as well as his playing, very seriously. In his concerto, Poulenc employs various styles, and interesting, unconventional soundscapes. The work is filled with beauty and mystery—subdued emotions. There are hints of Dialogues of the Carmelites, the great opera to come (1956), in the concerto.

But mind you: I am always hearing hints of the Dialogues in Poulenc’s pre-Dialogues works.

With Paul Jacobs, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, you are in good hands. (I am not slighting the earlier Cleveland performance. I have not heard it, and am commenting only on the Philadelphia one.) The Philadelphia strings play with great warmth, lyricism, and sensitivity. This is an exceptionally beautiful account of the concerto. Exceptionally inward, too, I would say.

Poulenc was not really a concerto composer, though he wrote four of them: for harpsichord (yes), two pianos, and piano, as well as organ. The piano concerto has never really caught on, has it? I can’t remember ever hearing it in concert—only on recordings. It is an unusual and personal concerto. We have to accept it on its own terms. In recent times, I have come to love it.

When you have twenty minutes to yourself, give the concerto a listen. Here, for example, is Gabriel Tacchino with the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, conducted by Georges Prêtre.

The middle movement is like a song. And if I can set the Dialogues aside—a hard thing to set aside, given its greatness—Poulenc’s songs are his pièces de résistance, I think. Oh, what songs. I think of what Richard Strauss said to Hans Hotter, toward the end of his (Strauss’s) life: “Actually, I like my songs best.” Totally understandable.

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