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Comparison: The many speeds of Francis Poulenc's Mélancolie for solo piano

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I’ve been luxuriating in the heavy cream sauce of pianist Stephen Hough’s new French Album, hot off the press from Hyperion. My first sighting of turning leaves at the end of a particularly nice last weekend of summer made me want to listen to Hough playing Francis Poulenc’s Mélancolie a couple more times.

Hough milks all the music on this album, stretching and shaping phrases with an artful delicacy that sounds even more French than any French pianist would dare attempt. Or so I thought.

This piece, one of Poulenc’s longer solo-piano works, dates from 1940. He and the people of France had far more to worry about than the passing of the seasons as the country was taken over by Nazi Germany mere months after it had overrun Poland.

The music looks back on happier times, yet doesn’t let the difficulties of the day pass unnoticed.

I’ve had several discussions with pianists over the years about when one knows one has found the right tempo in a piece of music. Usually, the artist says you simply know when you’ve found the music’s right speed. But that theory, of inherent rightness and balance in tempo, is a little but too elastic in practice to completely make sense.

Poulenc writes “Très modéré” as a tempo. That suggests slowness, but one doesn’t want the music to come to a stop, either.

Here to argue for the right sort of moderation are three great pianists: My gold standard of Mélancolie interpretations, recorded with elegant restraint by Alexandre Tharaud for a 2008 Poulenc album on the Arion label, followed by an indulgent interpretation by Pascal Rogé and a more brisk yet still colourful one by veteran Mexican pianist-composer Alberto Cruzprieto:

John Terauds

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