Sight Readings: Let's hear it for Monsieur Poulenc!

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A NEW year: time for a new look at the chronically underrated composer whose centenary falls this week. Francis Poulenc may have a big fan club in Japan, but in the West he is looked at askance, while his own country remains impervious to his music's acidulated charm. Since fashionability was in his view an artistic calamity, he would doubtless be proud of his standing in France today.

Poulenc died 36 years ago, but he is still fondly remembered. Leo Rothschild, chairman of the Royal College of Music, recalls a shy man playing to a student audience whose brutish interruptions he endured without complaint. The record-producer, Paul Myers, who knew him in the Fifties, recalls the impression he gave of a man who had survived into an alien age. "One sensed a sadness, which in his music is always set aside with a sudden laugh or a joke." It was at Myers's instigation that Pascal Roge began recording the complete cycle of Poulenc's piano works, whose final volume has just been released by Decca.

Roge - now the world leader in pianistic Poulenckery - embraced his vocation at an early age. "It happened when I was six. My mother, who was an organist, was practising Poulenc's organ concerto, and I quite simply fell in love with it, with the magic of its harmonies. I turned the pages for her, and pulled the stops, and even tried to play bits of it myself. When Poulenc heard her play it on the radio, he sent her a very nice letter. I never met him, though I wanted to." There was then a gap of many years, because at the Paris Conservatoire - where Roge went to study - people seldom breathed the name of Poulenc. "He was not considered an important composer for students to learn - and he still isn't now. But I kept that early memory and when, in my twenties, I started to build my own repertoire, I decided to look into his music. Then I discovered its riches. With some composers you can have an instant physical rapport, without knowing why. That is what I had with Poulenc."

Roge concedes that he was not an innovator in the normal sense of the word. "But you only need to hear two bars to know it is him, which is the mark of a great composer. He has his own language: he uses the harmonies which everyone else uses, but he does so like nobody else. Structure with Poulenc is not important; what counts is the colour, the style, the sound.

"It is a matter of expressiveness without sentimentality. What he wanted was emotional restraint, a kind of modesty - though not the impersonality of a machine."

We all embody paradoxes, but Poulenc did so more than most, in life as in art. His penchant for guardsmen and chauffeurs did not preclude his siring a daughter to whom he remained close. The funeral tribute by his friends Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears dwelt on the depression which lurked behind the witty facade. As our critic Bayan Northcott has pointed out, Poulenc's musical hallmark was a conceptual toughness which led him to expand the traditional notions of "the work" to breaking point. His instinctive astringency led him to despise his own most popular piano pieces, and even to hurl a completed string quartet down the drain.

Next Thursday, the soprano Felicity Lott will be one of those taking part in an anniversary concert at the Wigmore Hall: Poulenc's lyric muse was as inexhaustible as Schubert's, and his chansons and melodies are this century's best answer to the Viennese master. And for those who can't get to the concert, there is another option in the form of Lott's Decca recording on which Roge is the accompanist. Lott's delicate expressiveness feels infinitely more authentic than Jessye Norman's soupy ponderousness in EMI's four-box set.

But that set is still a treasure-trove. Everything is there, often in wonderfully historic performances. The composer himself whirls through his two-piano concerto with his original partner; the baritone Pierre Bernac, with whom Poulenc toured for decades, delivers the songs composed for him; Peter Ustinov narrates for the Babar suite; and Poulenc's muse Denise Duval splendidly incarnates the protagonist of La Voix Humaine. As Flaubert identified with his heroine ("Madame Bovary, c'est moi"), so Poulenc identified with this doomed character, who addresses her telephone in a dramatic monologue of unrequited love. Full of delights, these boxes amply support Poulenc's cautious self-justification: "I think there's room for new music which doesn't mind using other people's chords. Wasn't that the case with Mozart-Schubert?". Quite so.