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Debussy, Poulenc, Ravel, Francaix: Piano Concertos / Florian Uhlig

Debussy / Uhlig / Deutsche Radio Philharmonie
Release Date: 05/28/2013 
Label:  Hänssler Classic   Catalog #: 93302   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Claude DebussyJean FrançaixFrancis PoulencMaurice Ravel
Performer:  Florian Uhlig
Conductor:  Pablo Gonzalez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Talented German pianist Florian Uhlig has assembled a wonderfully smart program of familiar and less familiar French piano concertos that’s truly greater than the sum of its individual parts. Usually, the Ravel G major Concerto appears coupled to the Concerto for the Left Hand, making for a disc with very short playing time. Poulenc’s single piano concerto comes in tandem with other Poulenc concertos. Debussy’s Fantaisie can show up attached to just about anything as long as it’s French, while the Françaix Concertino, a delicious miniature, features not at all.

Having all four works on a single disc not only offers excellent value, it makes for very satisfying listening as a program. The works are well differentiated,
Read more from the late Romantic opulence of the Debussy, to the witty neo-classical Françaix, through Poulenc’s music-hall eclecticism and Ravel’s jazz-inflected brilliance. Uhlig has no problems encompassing the wide range on offer. Everyone will have favorite versions of the more familiar pieces, especially the Ravel, but Uhlig more than holds his own with his impressive technique, apt tempos, and a certain French precision and neatness of phrasing that’s quite idiomatic. Listen, for example, to his beautifully flowing opening of the Poulenc Concerto, a work whose seeming throw-away simplicity has befuddled more than one soloist.

Conductor Pablo González offers very sympathetic accompaniments, while both the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie and the SWR engineers do themselves proud. This is one of those collections you may be tempted to overlook on account of the unfamiliarity of the artists, but that would be a mistake. French piano music isn’t only for the French (remember Walter Gieseking?), while fine playing and creative programming speak for themselves. A winner.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com


This program demonstrates a number of stylistic cycles within 20th-century French music. Debussy’s early Fantasie was influenced by the lyrical muse of his teacher Massenet, an influence he eventually rejected. That work (and several others) sowed the seeds of the musical “Impressionism” that came to define Debussy and Ravel in the pre-World War I years—much as those two composers despised the term. Their style was then rejected by Les Six, who opted for a sharper, more brittle sound, typified in the slightly younger Jean Françaix’s Concertino of 1934. Ravel himself seemed to adopt the Les Six aesthetic in his late Piano Concerto, and finally, in Poulenc’s concerto of 1950, the now mature member of Les Six reverted to a sentimental lyricism reminiscent of... Massenet. What goes around comes around, as they say.

These popular works have been recorded often. While there is a great deal of dazzling competition, the new collection also demands its place in the sun. One of its assets is the rapport between the two 30-something musicians: German pianist Florian Uhlig and Spanish conductor Pablo González. They share a common approach to this music that could generally be described as robust. While this suits the smart little Françaix Concertino admirably, it pays exceptional dividends in Debussy’s Fantasie . Never have I heard this work given with such sweep and passion. No sentimentality or wan water lilies here: the piece, which can sometimes come across as pallid, is here bristling with color. The concerto was contemporaneous with Debussy’s Printemps , and spring is certainly in the air in this exhilarating performance.

Uhlig and González give an equally fine rendition of the Poulenc concerto. Admittedly, this work does not need a strong interpretative stance to succeed, but the performers are clearly sympathetic. González broadens the second movement’s lyrical theme beautifully when it is taken up by the orchestral strings, and both performers recognize the subtly Gallic nostalgia behind the third movement’s high spirits. Poulenc quotes Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home in this movement, supposedly as a nod to America since the Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned the work, yet by slightly varying the rhythm he succeeds in making the theme sound French. (It sounds like Poulenc, in fact.) It is also good to hear a sophisticated orchestral blend in this concerto—something older French recordings lacked, for all their idiosyncratic personality.

When it comes to the Ravel G-Major Piano Concerto it would be surprising if Uhlig matched the best of his competitors, and he doesn’t. It is an excellent performance with the same rapport in evidence, but like some other young pianists who have recorded this piece (notably Benjamin Grosvenor) Uhlig fails to achieve the dreamy, inward quality that makes the second movement so mesmerizing. Technically, his trill—such a crucial feature of the first and second movements—is neither as evenly produced nor as well sustained as those by Frank Peter Zimmerman, Argerich, or Thibaudet. I would still opt for their recordings as the ones to have, along with the now historic Michaelangeli and Katchen. At least Uhlig and González treat the final movement as a divertissement and not a hectic race to the finish line (Grosvenor again).

This disc is thoroughly recommended, especially for the Debussy which is outstanding. Such joyous music making demands a place in our lives.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott
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Works on This Recording

Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra by Claude Debussy
Performer:  Florian Uhlig (Piano)
Conductor:  Pablo Gonzalez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1889-1890; France 
Concertino for Piano by Jean Françaix
Performer:  Florian Uhlig (Piano)
Conductor:  Pablo Gonzalez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1932; France 
Concerto for Piano by Francis Poulenc
Performer:  Florian Uhlig (Piano)
Conductor:  Pablo Gonzalez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1949; France 
Concerto for Piano in G major by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Florian Uhlig (Piano)
Conductor:  Pablo Gonzalez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1929-1931; France 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  4 Customer Reviews )
 Remarkable pianoconcerto's November 1, 2013 By Robert Glorieux (Munte, East-Flanders) See All My Reviews "Before buying this CD I only knew the pianoconcerto by M. Ravel. After listening to the 3 others I must conclude that the pieces were particular : first the Debussy, probably written at a young age and influenced by the former romantic style in music; Poulenc and Francaix were a discovery : fresh and typical French sounds, very accessible and pleasant to listen to. I am pleased to own this CD." Report Abuse
 A rising star October 6, 2013 By Frances Vandervoort See All My Reviews "Pianist Florian Uhlig offers a refreshing interpretation of standard French fare the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major and Debussy fantastic and reminds of us that there are other composers that these two giants. Poulenc's concerto and Francaix' elegantly whimsical concertino almost make one smile -- Uhlig played these beautifully. Thank you for allowing this fine young pianist to introduce us to French music familar and not-so-familiar! F. Vandervoort" Report Abuse
 A Great Collection October 5, 2013 By L. Weil (Oakland, CA) See All My Reviews "This is a marvelous recording, mostly of works that are seldom heard, the exception being, of course, the Ravel. I had never heard of Uhlig, and I regret that: his performances of these works is excellent and make me want to be on the lookout for other recordings, or, if possible, a live performance." Report Abuse
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