It’s difficult to imagine a more quintessentially Parisian composer than Francis Poulenc – a bon vivant, elegant, the epitome of French insouciance. You’d expect his music would be in the repertoire of every orchestra in the capital. Mais, non. Two of the works in this Poulenc triple bill conducted by Corinna Niemeyer at the Philharmonie were being played by the Orchestre de Paris for only the second time, while it had never performed the Concert champêtre before in its 54-year history. Incroyable !

Jean Rondeau
© Mathias Benguigui | Pasco And Co

Why this neglect? Was it a reaction to the sneering attitude of influential composers like Pierre Boulez? (“Poulenc coming after Sacre? It was not progress.”) Or the fact that the Orchestre de Paris hasn’t had a French music director since Charles Munch? Either way, it appears Poulenc needs his champions as the results here were decidedly mixed.

Things got off to a sticky start with the Concert champêtre, written for the great Wanda Landowska, a “rustic” harpsichord concerto where the instrument is transplanted from the Baroque stage of Versailles and finds itself in the chic Paris of the 1920s. It’s not a pastiche, but the ideas tumble out, sometimes incoherently, in fits and starts. Niemeyer had her work cut out given the capricious performance of Jean Rondeau who pulled around his solos to a frustrating degree. His playing often had an improvisatory air, mainly due to strange agogic hesitations and gear changes. In the slow movement, his response to the orchestra’s lilting sicilienne was to slam on the brakes, destroying the pulse. Rondeau’s cadenza that opens the Finale lurched about unsteadily, tottering on stiletto heels. Yes, Poulenc is having fun with his imitation of Baroque, but he’s not poking fun at it. A bizarre reading.

Corinna Niemeyer
© Mathias Benguigui | Pasco And Co

Niemeyer was on firmer ground in the Sinfonietta, the nearest Poulenc ever got to writing a symphony. There’s a British link here as the work was commissioned in 1947 by the BBC for the first anniversary of the Third Programme (now BBC Radio 3). Like Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, it seems to draw its inspiration from Haydn, but feels more substantial. Its first performance by the Orchestre de Paris was in 1971 under Georges Prêtre. This second performance was neat, Niemeyer, with a whippy baton style, keeping tempi moving, especially the bustling Molto vivace second movement where the Paris woodwinds chattered happily and the strings strutted. Here was style and sophistication, plus the quicksilver changes of mood which marks so much of Poulenc’s music.

Loriane Llorca plays Poulenc's Organ Concerto
© Mathias Benguigui | Pasco And Co

Nowhere are those quicksilver mood shifts – “half-monk, half-rascal” – so pronounced than in the Organ Concerto. Commissioned in 1934 by the Princesse de Polignac (Winnaretta Singer, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune) as a piece with an easy solo part that she could play herself, it grew into something much more ambitious. From the grandiose opening quotation of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor (which featured on the princess’ headed notepaper), the concerto veers between pulpit and fairground at dizzying speeds. Playing at a sleek white digital console that appeared to have landed like a spaceship behind the first violins, Loriane Llorca gave a superb account, the Rieger’s pipes – backlit in blue above the stage – given an extensive workout. She relished the thunderous, Gothic statements and the sudden Allegro giocoso shifts to the impish Poulenc who cannot resist a joke. The beatific slow sections – “Poulenc en route for the cloister” as the composer described it – were sensitively shaped. Despite a few ensemble slips, the Paris strings kept pace, underpinned by a quartet of double basses, bumping and grinding, and the witty timpani interjections. A memorable performance and an uplifting end to the evening.

This performance was reviewed from the Philharmonie de Paris' video stream