One of my favorite compositions of the XX century art music is Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. In it, sudden modulations and tempo changes are combined with bright orchestration (for a rather modest orchestra composition) and French charm. Especially, Iy like the final movement bright beginning, the “bell ringing” at the end of that finale (which likely echoes with Mussorgsky’s one, Poulenc knew well and loved that composer), the melodic second part of the concert, and the first theme in the first movement. I mean, I love this whole concert.

The work which later became The Concerto for two pianos had been commissioned to Poulenc by Princess de Polignac (well-known philanthropist) in 1932. By this time she had known Poulenc for many years but had not asked him to compose anything. As an American art historian, Benjamin Ivry writes[1], to win her sympathy he was playing for hours Mozart’s, Liszt’s, and Ravel’s concertos as well as works of Markevich – not so well-known Russian composer who was the last Dyagilev passion.

The concert consists of three parts: Allegro ma non troppo, Larghetto and Allegro molto. However, from the point of view of form, the work of Poulenc does not fit into a classical concert and is rather a fantasy. For example, the first part ends at a slow tempo, unlike the primary allegro.

Ivry: “Poulenc takes the listener on a silent-film adventure, in which a symphonic storm is whipped up while the two pianists pluckily continue playing. As a further splash of exotica at the end of the first movement, Poulenc added a bizarre tinkly passage, which he said was inspired by Balinese gamelan music which he had heard at the 1931 Colonial Exhibition at the Paris de Chaillot”.

The author of “A History of the Concerto” Michael Thomas Roeder[2]: “Poulenc’s generally light style is marked by a range of traits: simple, tuneful melodic ideas of narrow range and short duration; lively rhythmic content often using ostinatos and a fluidity of changing meters; clear, transparent textures with little contrapuntal writing; an essentially diatonic tonal language spiced by some dissonance; and clear forms, occasionally involving cyclical recall of thematic material”.

Poulenc himself said of the concert[3]: “the reason for the success of the Concert in America is very simple. They love music for two pianos, and duet ensembles are as numerous there as string quartets in Europe. The Concert’s popularity was greatly boosted by its recording with the New York Philharmonic under Mitropoulos. In addition, this work is brilliant and sounds well”.

The concerto was premiered on September 5, 1932, and was played by Poulenc, the French pianist Jacques Fevrier with the La Scala orchestra which at the time was directed by Toscanini. The Maestro himself, however, did not conduct that evening and had never conducted Poulenc’s music at all. But the composer was delighted with the quality of the musicians. By the way, later in 1945, Poulenc played this concert at the British Royal Albert Hall, and the second pianist was Benjamin Britten.

I suggest you listen to the version of the concerto performed by Marta Argerich and Nelson Goerner (2013).

[1] Benjamin Ivry. Francis Poulenc. Phaidon Press, London 1996

[2] Michael Thomas Roeder. A history of the concerto. Amadeus Press, Portland, Oregon, 2003

[3] Франсис Пуленк. Я и мои друзья. Москва, Музыка, 1977

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