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Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, flute, 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets, cymbals, military drum, snare drum, triangle), strings, and two pianos
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 30, 1943, Vladimir Bakaleinikoff conducting, with soloists Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson
The influence of Ravel and Debussy (buttressed by fatigue with the Germans who had dominated music for so long) nourished a continuing cultivation of the French aesthetic into mid-century. Francis Poulenc was the best-known member of Les Six, an informal group of composers with a bent toward the engaging. (Poulenc’s Les Six colleagues were Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and Germaine Tailleferre.) Critic J.B. Trend in 1929 dismissed them as “momentarily amusing,” but Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto is perhaps the best defense against that accusation. It was commissioned by the Princess Edmonde de Polignac (born Winaretta Singer), who brought her American background and fortune to the vibrant cultural scene of postwar Paris. The savvy, well-traveled quality of Poulenc’s score is a fitting tribute to his patroness.
The composer drops us right into the action. In other hands, the obsessive repeated motive and dissonant harmonies would be savage; instead they seem bright and animated, placing the pianos at home in the percussion section with a call-and-response series of short motives. Later, cartoon-like percussion gestures give way to a lyrical section; Poulenc’s deft handling of the two pianos against spare orchestral texture creates a luster that recalls Ravel’s own piano concerto. Then it’s back to the busy urban ambiance just long enough to create surprise when we drift into a mesmerizing and exotic soundscape inspired by the gamelan, which Poulenc had heard the year before at the Colonial Exposition of Paris. At the last minute a couple of quick gestures dispel the shadows.
Before we have time to adjust our expectations, the second movement whisks us away with an elegant Mozartean theme (Mozart with a touch of art deco, that is), first stated straightforwardly, then overlaid with sustained harmonies whose touches of dissonance add wistfulness rather than modern anxiety. A carefully modulated increase in tempo and dynamics gives shape to the movement, then gently leads back into the first section. A snare drum announces the sparkling third movement. Cascading piano passages and touches of flute color punctuate a musical evocation of modern life – whose nervous pace and incongruous juxtapositions are handled in a manner at once urban and urbane.
— Susan Key is a musicologist specializing in 20th-century American music.