At last, SONY has released Eric Le Sage's entire RCA set of Poulenc recordings. The set begins with 3 discs of the complete solo piano music; Disc 4 contains the piano concertos (and Aubade); and discs 5 & 6 are comprised of the chamber music, most of which involves piano (clarification below). This is simply a splendid collection, all immensely well played and recorded.
It's interesting that SONY had just released earlier this year a 3-disc box of the complete solo piano music recorded for SONY by Paul Crossley. And as wonderful as that set is, following it up with Le Sage's RCA set - which adds 3 more discs but not costing much more - Crossley's becomes superseded. The Le Sage box is definitely the set to have, as the solo works are equally gloriously played, and even better recorded. The set of solo piano and all the chamber works were recorded in 1998; the Concertos (and Aubade) followed 5 years later, in 2003.
The Sonatas for various instruments and piano are completely glorious works, some of Poulenc's finest creations. Le Sage (and RCA) gathered the most fantastic group of instrumentalists to join him. And in the Sextet, they even draw upon some big name soloists (clarinetist Paul Meyer and flutist Emmanuel Pahud, to name two that I know well). They are all as well played as can be imagined. To hear this level of consistent excellence within a recorded collection is astonishing.
Also included in this box, for completeness, are 3 works that do not involve Eric Le Sage: the Sonata for Horn, Trumpet & Trombone, Sonata for Clarinet & Bassoon, and Sonata for 2 Clarinets. Thank you, SONY, for having the foresight to include these even though they don't technically fit with your naming of the set ("Eric Le Sage plays Poulenc"). It is absolutely glorious to have them included, as the benefits of having all of Poulenc's chamber music in one place are enormous.
And that's not all - the riches are bountiful here. We also get L'invitation au chateau (Music for the Play), scored for Clarinet, Violin and Piano. These miniatures are the definition of charm and delight. It's impossible not to smile while listening.
As to the concertos - of course the Organ and Harpsichord concertos are not included (as they do not involve pianist Eric Le Sage). But, Aubade is - which is a piano concerto in all but name. And the Piano Concerto and Concerto for Two Pianos recorded here are absolutely without doubt the best I have ever heard (and I think I own every recorded version available.) These are favorites of mine and these performances of them are unmatched - in muscular, energetic, characterful playing, orchestral contributions and recorded sound. Indeed, Stephane Deneve and the Liege Philharmonic Orchestra are magnificent partners. Absolutely fantastic!
It is difficult to praise this box highly enough. Not only is it a well-thought-out, comprehensive, and logical set, but it brings into wide circulation these recordings, many of which have heretofore been difficult to find/obtain. Some of these recordings were available in a SONY French import (part of the "Un Siecle En France" series). It was a 4-disc affair dedicated to Poulenc, not specifically to Le Sage. It contained only 1 disc each of solo piano and chamber works, a disc of concertos (piano, two piano, and Munch's Organ Concerto), and a 4th disc of miscellaneous choral works. Aubade was originally available on a 2004 French RCA release and additionally as an ArkivMusic reproduction at one time - duplicating disc 3 in this current SONY box. Having all this material, plus all the previously missing chamber and solo works is cause for celebration.
And the celebrations continue when one factors in the current 24-bit remastering here. While all of the music described in the paragraph above was well recorded, it sounds even better now. The French import box had a rather forward, almost aggressive sound. It was at all times very exciting and involving, but a bit fatiguing, with an occasional edge on top. And the Concertos, as recorded, could sound a bit harsh in the upper range of the orchestra. The current 24-bit remastering brings sound which is now less forward, more refined (mastered at a slightly lower volume), and the result is an instantly more relaxed, pleasing sound - without losing any impact or energy. The Concertos are still not quite state of the art, and the midrange is not quite as clearly focused as before. But the harsh edge has been tamed and the soundstage is more spacious. The differences are not huge, but on a good sound system, they are significant and very beneficial.
I have been critical, at times, of the folks at SONY for not being thorough or complete (or in some cases, not even logical) in compiling some of these budget box sets. They have certainly pulled out all the stops on this one and have exceeded my expectations in every way. While I realize I've overused the word glorious in this narrative, there simply is no better word to describe this set. For all lovers of the music of Poulenc, it is absolutely indispensable.