There are some brilliantly original keyboard recitals coming from independent labels these days, and this is certainly one of them. Antonio Pompa-Baldi is best known for his excellent ongoing complete Grieg piano music cycle on Centaur. For this, his first recital on Steinway’s own label, he offers an unusual, intelligent, and very satisfying disc of transcriptions of songs composed by Poulenc (the “rascal” of the album title), and a solo-keyboard selection of popular favorites sung by Edith Piaf (the “sparrow”), including iconic numbers such as “La vie en rose” and “Non, je ne regrette rien.” The Piaf transcriptions are by Roberto Piana, while Pompa-Baldi himself arranged the Poulenc songs (exceptRead more of course for the Improvisation No. 15, Poulenc’s “Hommage à Edith Piaf”, which is a piano solo originally).
The art of transcribing songs for the piano goes back at least to Liszt and his first Schubert song transcriptions of the 1830s. Piana calls his Piaf arrangements “elaborations”, for that really is what they are—the song used as the basis for a self-contained keyboard miniature. Pompa-Baldi follows the same general pattern. For example, Poulenc’s song “Je n’ai envie que de t’aimer” from the cycle Tel jour, telle nuit lasts scarcely 30 seconds in Poulenc’s own performance with baritone Pierre Bernac. Here the piece is taken slower, and extended for a full minute and a half. In this arrangement it sounds “torchier”, more like a Piaf song, but also more satisfyingly self-contained. Not that there is any stylistic incompatibility between Poulenc and the cabaret song-writers of his day—far from it. Poulenc’s idiom is saturated with the sounds of the Parisian cabarets of the 1920s and ’30s, and beyond that, a great song is a great song, period. In this genre, terms such as “classical” and “popular” for the most part are meaningless labels.
Some of the better known Poulenc songs that Pompa-Baldi includes are “C”, “Les chemins de l’amour” (which even listeners who know nothing of Poulenc’s songs will recognize), “Montparnasse”, “Hyde Park”, and “Vous n’écrivez plus?”. There are 27 numbers in all, each wonderfully played, with a pathos that never turns pathetic in the more languishing pieces, and a zesty swagger where the music asks for it. Both Poulenc and Piaf died 50 years ago, in 1963, making this disc a splendid tribute to two major contemporaneous figures in French music who, to the best of our knowledge, never actually met. How satisfying it also is that Steinway is not in any hurry to record yet another Beethoven sonata cycle, but is willing to let talented yet lesser-known artists record truly interesting, distinctive programs. This one’s certainly a winner from start to finish.
THE RASCAL AND THE SPARROW • Antonio Pompa-Baldi (pn) • STEINWAY & SONS 2013 (67:40)
POULENC Les Chemins de l’amour. Hommage à Edith Piaf. Rosemonde. Berceuse. Reine des mouettes. C’est ainsi que tu es. C. Le Pont. Je n’ai envie que de t’aimer. Couplets bachiques. Nos souvenirs chantent. Le Départ. Le Dernier mazour. Attributs. Montparnasse. Hyde Park. Vous n’écrivez plus?. MONNOT Hymne à l’amour. Un grand amour. Les Amants d’un jour. Mon Légionnaire. C’est à Hambourg. LOUIGUY La Vie en rose. BERNHEIM Paris. BOUQUET Je sais comment. DUMONT Non, je ne regrette rien. Mon Dieu!
Francis Poulenc wrote an improvisation, his No. 15 in C Minor, and called it Hommage à Edith Piaf. Piaf, France’s best-known cabaret singer, was known as “The Little Sparrow.” Poulenc, whose music was sometimes irreverent, is characterized here as “The Rascal.” Italian-born pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi saw this dedication and decided to build on it. He mixed transcriptions of Poulenc’s songs with piano arrangements of Piaf’s repertoire, describing it as a dialogue between the composer and the singer, the rascal and the sparrow. Although they were both famous in the 1920s and the 1930s and they had mutual friends such as Jean Cocteau, we don’t know that they were ever introduced to each other. Some of the songs Pompa-Baldi plays are familiar, such as R.S. Louiguy’s La Vie en rose, Marguerite Monnot’s Un grand amour (a great love), and Charles Dumont’s Non, je ne regrette rien (No, I regret nothing), but most of the Poulenc pieces are not well known. Many of them are soft-grained and create a pleasant or sweetly sad mood that never reaches a fever pitch, but that was the general modus operandi of both artists. The Poulenc’s Berceuse (Lullaby) may be the softest, but it helps delineate the songs that precede and follow it. His Reine des mouettes (Queen of seagulls) gives a perfect picture of the beach on a cloudy day and it leads into his delightful C’est ainsi que tu es (How you are) and the song we all know, La vie en rose (Life in pink).
Monnot’s Les Amants d’un jour (Lovers of a day) and Poulenc’s C simply add to the amorous mood their music has already created. Monnot’s Mon Légionnaire and Poulenc’s Hyde Park are more dramatic and serve to punctuate the established ambience. His melodic Polish songs Le Départ (The departure) and Le Dernier mazour (The last mazurka) add their resplendent tunes to this glorious mix. This disc could supply the perfect music for a party with a French theme: anything from crepes to pastry to wine.
Poulenc’s songs are new and interesting. If any listeners think it would be nice to hear them sung, there is a new release that features Felicity Lott, Christopher Maltman, and others singing Poulenc’s songs on a four-disc Hyperion set. Edith Piaf sings her chansons on Sepia Recordings. There are no truly comparable recordings for The Rascal and the Sparrow and I doubt that anyone will want to compete with Antonio Pompa-Baldi’s tour de force at the piano. He has given us a gem with clean, clear sound. Listening to this recording makes me remember Paris.
Great CDNovember 30, 2014By J Robert Brookens (Marion, KS)See All My Reviews"I've enjoyed the music of Poulenc for years, but only his sacred (and incredibly difficult) works. This new side, and hearing familiar melodies that were written by him is delightful, and pairing it with the songs of Edith Piaf is not only imaginative, but brilliant. I watched Edith Piaf as a kid on Ed Sullivan and was fascinated by this little woman. If this is piano bar stuff, well give me more! The music on this CD so well done, wonderful music and wonderful arranging in some cases. Worth every penny."Report Abuse
Well, now, this one is just lovely!January 29, 2014By Jane J R. (Royal Oak, MI)See All My Reviews"Edith Piaf sang the blues en francais so beautifully with the lilt that reminds that this too shall pass. Poulenc captures all of that brilliantly and Pompa-Baldi delivers it impeccably, making the piano sing with Piaf's voice. This is a disc to play a many times, to raise your spirits and feed your heart."Report Abuse
Just a piano bar.....December 31, 2013By Maria C A. (RICHMOND, CA)See All My Reviews"It is a nice music, but no more than you'd expect on a piano bar at a good restaurant or bar...."Report Abuse