Lake District countdown 2: Paul on Poulenc

In the second of a series of posts on the music featured in our upcoming concert as part of the Lake District Summer Music festival, Paul Cott investigates Poulenc’s rearrangements

We’ve played a lot of rarely-heard music in the Berkeley Ensemble but one of the items in our Ambleside concert has been frequently heard – but not in this guise.

One of Francis Poulenc’s earliest successes was the short piano suite, Mouvements perpétuels, written in 1918 when he was 19 years old. In a letter to his piano teacher Ricardo Viñes, he wrote that they were “easy enough for a child to play”. The children Poulenc knew must have had a lot of talent, and big hands. The pieces became very popular and in 1948, the first of them was used in one of my favourite (if not the greatest) Hitchcock films, Rope.

Poulenc later arranged the suite for an ensemble of nine instruments – wind quintet, string trio and double bass – and this is the version we will be playing later this week. Poulenc made quite a few full orchestral arrangements of his piano pieces, which are often quite revealing. The lovely Pastourelle, for example, has touches of Stravinsky which are amplified in the orchestration.

The opening of the Mouvements takes on a rather more energetic quality in Poulenc’s chamber version, with lots of spiky short notes and previously unheard interjections from the flute and oboe. On the piano, the second piece has a very gentle quality that we would struggle to match on our instruments, considering how thickly Poulenc scores it.  But he captures the eeriness with added colour including bits of flutter tonguing in the flute and plucking and harmonics in the strings, and Katie will be exchanging her oboe for the cor anglais as well.  The last one bounces along in a similar fashion but has quite a lot of added notes towards the end. I can’t describe them so if you’re in the north you’ll have to come along and hear it for yourself.