Antony Gray’s set of the complete piano music of Francis Poulenc is, to paraphrase Orwell, more complete than others. Besides the many pieces written expressly for solo piano it contains Poulenc’s music accompanying the story of Barbar the Elephant (sans narration) and several transcriptions of other works including the Sonata for Two Clarinets, the Sonata for Horn, Trumpet and Trombone, and the ballet Les Animeaux Modèles. The latter was arranged by the composer, so it is more than a mere piano reduction for rehearsal purposes. There is also an arrangement of Mozart’s Musical Joke. Hence, five CDs as opposed to Pascal Rogé’s three.
Gray has previously given us welcome surveys of piano music by Eugene Goossens and Malcolm Williamson, but here he enters a highly competitive field. Beginning with the composer himself (who recorded the Mouvements Perpétuels, the Two Novelettes and a selection of Nocturnes and Improvisations in the 1920s and 30s), many extensive selections of Poulenc’s piano music have appeared. Among French pianists are the composer’s friend and duo-piano partner Jacques Février, Gabriel Tacchino, Rogé, and more recently Éric Le Sage. Poulenc’s light touch is compelling; he plays his music as though he were improvising it. English pianist Paul Crossley recognises this in his own “complete” 1987 recording for Sony, employing plentiful rubato and, like the composer, sudden bursts of speed. (Poulenc’s rendition of Mouvement Perpétuel No 1 is by far the fastest.)
Gray’s use of rubato is less wilful than Crossley’s, but also more conventional, neatly rounding out the ends of phrases. Gray emulates Poulenc’s lightness, but his elegance and polish feel more suitable for Fauré or Saint-Saëns. His approach is underlined by the recording, which emphasises the treble end of the instrument: Gray’s piano is frustratingly bass light at times. Compare the first of the Improvisations: Gray is swift and incisive where the aggressive Le Sage explosively shatters the silence. Le Sage’s Poulenc is a modernist first of all, with a rough-hewn, impulsive nature. It doesn’t work for everything, and one wearies of it, but Gray at the opposite extreme strikes me as too civilised and mellifluous. Rogé, whose Poulenc CDs for Decca have remained a benchmark for decades, seems to strike a workable balance between the two. (However, Fevriér’s warmth in the suite Napoli has never been matched!)
Comparisons apart, Gray’s recording represents a major achievement.