There is only one word necessary to review this disk: magnificent.
This is fantastic stuff; Ashkenazy père et fils let
loose on French piano music. Marvellous. En blanc et noir is
fiendishly difficult both to play and to “bring off” in
performance. Here there is a real swagger to the first movement,
the swirling lines simply flash past in a headlong rush, but
every line is as clear as you could want. The slow movement
evokes the war and contains bugle calls and a reference to
the chorale Ein’ feste Burg; the Ashkenazys paint
a bleak and devastated landscape which is just about perfect.
The final scherzando has a restraint to it. Roger Nichols,
in his excellent notes in the booklet, suggests that perhaps
Debussy was aware of his own impending death. Whatever, this
performance shows an understatement which is breathtaking.
Jeux was written for Diaghilev and was premiered two
weeks before Le Sacre du Printemps. The furore caused
by that latter event has, over the years, caused us to forget
Debussy’s work. I have to confess that Jeux has
never really spoken to me. True, it’s orchestrated superbly,
has some real highpoints but, overall, I find the work unsatisfactory.
Perhaps the elusiveness of the music goes against it ever becoming
really popular with audiences. This version for two pianos
is by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, no slouch himself at the keyboard
- indeed, a friend of mine heard him recently playing the Ravel Left
Hand Concerto in London and declared it to be the best
performance of that work he’d ever heard (in over 45
years of concert going) - and it is very successful. It’s
interesting that at no time did I actually miss orchestral
colour, and this is a very sensuous score. I’m still
not won over to the score but this performance, and arrangement,
go a long way to explaining to me what it is all about. Rather
cheekily, Bavouzet has retained the part for suspended cymbal
at the beginning and end. It is just right within the context
of the arrangement.
Lindaraja is probably Debussy’s response to the
habanera in Ravel’s Les sites auriculaires for
it employs the 3+2 2+3 rhythm of the Spanish dance. It’s
a lighter piece and a nice foil for the complexities of Jeux.
Les sites auriculaires - Roger Nichols suggests Places
to put your ears as a fair translation) consists of two
pieces, an habanera (which became the third movement of Rapsodie
espagnole - and Entre cloches. The bells peal quite
aggressively, then reflectively, then joyously. It’s
a delightful little piece; not typical Ravel, but an interesting
insight into his mind before finally finding his style.
The Rapsodie espagnole is also very fine. A very atmospheric Prélude à la
nuit, full of perfume and promise, is followed by a marvellously
rhythmic Malagueña, light and fleeting. This
is followed by the Habanera from Les sites auriculaires;
once again we have sex and the night, with sultry and very
colourful playing. The final Feria is a riot of pianism
The disk doesn’t end in holidaymaking but in one of Ravel’s
darkest works: La Valse. Written as a ballet for Diaghilev,
but refused by him, it has gone on to become a staple of the
concert repertoire. It’s a view of fin de siècle Vienna,
at a grand court ball, and a depiction of the end of the world.
This is a truly great performance! The Ashkenazys have the
right attitude and they play with a passion and fire. The ending,
where four beats tear across three really does make it seem
as if it’s all over.
This is outstanding.