Classical: The alchemical brother

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IN A drawing by Otto Bohler, there is a distinguished roll-call of composers congratulating Schubert on his 100th birthday in heaven. Some of the same composers, including Mozart, turned up at the BBC Philharmonic's centenary tribute to Francis Poulenc in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall.

Couperin, Stravinsky, Messiaen and even Edith Piaf jostled with a hundred other unbilled stars in Poulenc's music.

Whatever goes on in heaven, and although he is still sniffed at in his native country, Poulenc has been enjoying a very happy 100th anniversary in this country. The BBC Philharmonic's celebrations were conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier, another Frenchman more feted in this country than in his own.

The concert attracted a large audience curious to check out the composer who was once described as "a bit of a monk and a bit of a hooligan".

There's no escaping the fact that Stravinsky's Pulcinella is a strikingly obvious pattern for Poulenc's ballet score, Les Biches, the younger composer's early attempt at his own brand of neo-classical piquancy, elegant instrumentation and whimsical charm. In this performance, the orchestral suite from Les Biches turned out to be a slightly flat opener.

It's unlikely that Peter Donohoe and Martin Roscoe could ever be confused with the Labeque sisters, who've made the Concerto for Two Pianos something of their own piece. Donohoe and Roscoe homed in on the work's dynamic character from an opening exchange of violent intensity.

"Poulenc may never have penned an original note," wrote the composer Ned Rorem, "but every note became pure Poulenc through some witty alchemy". That alchemy was magically at work here, particularly in the Mozart-inspired slow movement.

Poulenc's Stabat Mater and his short unaccompanied setting of Paul Eluard's wintry text Un Soir de Neige reflect an older, more mature Poulenc. He became a composer of more serious note after a tragic accident involving a colleague. One of his earliest religious works, the 12-movement Stabat Mater may reflect Poulenc in more restrained mood, especially in some of the orchestral writing, but not when it comes to the luxurious soprano solos beautifully sung here by Lynne Dawson. Under Tortelier's direction, the medieval text unfolded with operatic intensity, each scene vividly portrayed by the Leeds Festival Chorus and the BBC Singers. Poulenc's delicate word-setting, luminous sonorities and uncompromising harmonies in Un Soir de Neige provided the BBC Singers with an opportunity to display their balanced ensemble and exemplary tuning. This was the real Poulenc, after all.

Lynne Walker