These recordings of Les biches and Pastourelle derive from 1981, while the Aubade and Les animaux modèles were recorded in 1966. Dates and sound aside, there’s little difference between the two sets of performances. Prêtre put his individual stamp on everything he conducted, for better or worse. He always emphasized precision and energy. Sometimes, as in his Les pêcheurs de perles and La traviata, this unfailingly no-nonsense approach was greatly to the detriment of the music. At other times, as in this release, Prêtre found exactly the right style. His Poulenc had hard edges and sharp corners. It never avoided the glaring emotional dissonances that swept quickly from flowering gardens to jazz cabarets, with melodies and harmonies snatched and transformed from other composers past and present.
The strongest competition for these selections comes from Dutoit/Orchestre National de France (London/Decca 2LH 452937). Aided by digital engineering, Dutoit brings out far more of the color in this rich music. Prêtre’s Les biches is by comparison slightly distant in its engineering, while the Aubade and Les animaux modèles are a bit constricted and airless, with minor signs of distortion during very loud passages. But Dutoit’s Poulenc has a smoothed-over sound that could very well pass for any of several composers from the early part of the century. The Poulenc of Prêtre is distinctly brasher and more vivid, in a series that bore the composer’s imprimatur. Some of this may be due to changes over recent years in the timbre of French orchestras, which tends more recently towards an international norm (for better and worse). However, Prêtre gets that pungent sound in Les biches from the Philharmonia, so a good case can be made for the conductor recreating an aural environment that he recognized as true to its source.
The liner notes feature a new, lengthy article dedicated almost entirely to Prêtre, who, we are told, is a very humble man who venerates the composers whose works he conducts. What a shame EMI didn’t share that viewpoint and give us an article about Poulenc and his music, instead.
For all the wealth of colorful detail in Dutoit, this release remains for me a touchstone of how to conduct Poulenc. In all its vulgarity, humor, sentimentality, and sensitivity, it’s well worth your acquaintance.--Barry Brenesal