Le comble de la distinction: David Jalbert. ATMA Classique ACD2 2683. Total time: 72 minutes.
Ottawa-based pianist David Jalbert puts on an impressive magic show in his latest solo album, which interweaves pieces by French composers Erik Satie and Francis Poulenc.
This is music that needs a light touch coupled with an all-in, nothing-held-back attitude. It also needs assured technique and a very clear sense of phrasing. There is a lot going on under the polished surfaces, so in order to be tossed off with the ease and wit of good salon repartee, the interpreter pretty much needs to do quite a bit of sleight of hand and never, ever let a bead of perspiration show on his brow. Jalbert accomplishes all this, and more.
This salon pieces on this album could easily be dismissed as fluff, but Jalbert’s interpretations are so clear and beguiling, that by the third listen, I was developing a love affair with some of the works, especially Poulenc’s eight Nocturnes, which close the album. There is a lot going on in this music, enough for the ear to find something new with each listen.
I also developed a lot of respect for the way in which the pianist organized the sequence of works, although the order of programming matters less and less as people build their own playlists.
The title of the album, which translates as “the epitome of distinction” comes from Poulenc’s Les soirées de Nazelles, a suite of 12 pieces that grew out of improvising at the piano at a friend’s country retreat in central France in the 1930s. Poulenc enjoyed creating musical sketches of his friends. The characters are long gone, but Poulenc’s music brings alive a world perched in transition between the Belle Époque and the Machine Age, between Impressionism and something much more abstract.
Poulenc was born in 1899 to the very well-to-do owner of a Parisian pharmaceutical company. (He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1963). But his formative adolescent experience was World War I. Europe was altered forever by that war, but vestiges of the old Paris hung around until the Nazis invaded France two decades later. Most of the pieces Jalbert chose come from this period, mixing new and old, beauty and ugliness, optimism and foreboding.
The biggest challenge for the interpreter is to find a balance between exuberance and good taste. The nostalgia can never be too deep; the humour should never be too broad; the technical feats never too daringly highlighted. At the same time, Poulenc’s music needs to sound like it’s being made up on the spot.
Jalbert finds the ideal balance between extroversion and restraint. His musical gestures are finely shaded and nuanced, yet his playing sounds fresh and spontaneous. One of the highlights of controlled ebullience his rendition of Poulenc’s 1959 homage to Édith Piaf, in Improvisation No. 15.
The pianist has tossed in a few pieces by Erik Satie (1866-1925), who was a generation older than Poulenc, and an irreverent trail blazer for Les Six, the loose little band of young musical-pot stirrers that counted Poulenc as a member.
By Satie we get the familiar three Gymnopédies, a set of three character pieces, Les trois valses distinguées du précieux dégouté (The Three Waltzes of the Precious Dandy), and Poulenc’s straightforward transcription of Satie’s most famous song, Je te veux (I Want You).
There is much to love and admire here. This album is also a clear and compelling argument that there was worthy French piano music written after Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. It’s a great way to open up some musical horizons while also putting a smile on your face.
As far as doing justice to Poulenc goes, this album fully lives up to its title.
Here are some insights David Jalbert gave CBC Music on the Gymnopédies, by Éric Satie:
The link to the ATMA Classique webpage:
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