Label: EMI
Format : Flac track
Cover : Box (front + back)

There are two major reasons to own this set. The first, obviously, is because you get the complete works of Poulenc, one of the 20th century’s great composers. Not every performance is ideal; we are still waiting for a superb version of Les Biches, for example, and Georges Prêtre’s complete digital recording was not truly memorable either sonically or interpretively. This however is the exception that proves the rule–otherwise, this is great stuff. As a composer, Poulenc had a much wider range than is usually thought, and this opportunity to hear his complete output confirms just that fact. There’s a world of difference between the unaccompanied choral and sacred works, and his concertos and other instrumental pieces, but all of it sounds entirely characteristic and personal.

The other reason to own this set is because it captures performances by some of the greatest French artists of the first half of the 20th century, many working in a style that has effectively vanished. I’m thinking of those marvelously piquant French woodwinds in the chamber works–consider the Sextuor for piano and winds, or the delicious Trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano (first sound clip). In the orchestral pieces, there’s the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, an ensemble that preserved a performance style going back to Beethoven himself (no, you won’t find authentic Classical orchestral timbre in Vienna), or Aimée Van de Wiele’s jumbo harpsichord in the Concert champêtre. For the piano and chamber works, we have Jacques Févier (among others) and Poulenc himself.

Then there are the singers. Poulenc was one of the great 20th century songwriters, and EMI assembled a tremendous roster of French song specialists: Ely Ameling, Gabriel Bacquier, Pierre Bernac, and Gérard Souzay. In the operas we have the amazing voice of Denise Duval, not just in Dialogues of the Carmelites, but in her still unmatched version of La voix humaine. And if you don’t know Les Mamelles de Tirésias, then you’re missing one of the great comic operas. In Dialogues, we also have the young and vocally resplendent Régine Crespin, and Rita Gorr as well. EMI has also thoughtfully included a classic rendition of Poulenc’s unforgettable torch song Les chemins de l’amour, sung by Yvonne Printemps (second sound clip).

The sonics have dated, no doubt about that, but everything is quite listenable, and even the mono recordings are generally very good. This exact same set was released in four separate albums a decade or so ago by EMI France; here it appears in a single 20-CD box, but the couplings are otherwise identical. The lack of texts and translations is an issue, but you should have little problem in these Internet days sourcing them online, as necessary. Essential.

Complete tracklist : Poulenc – Oeuvres Completes