> RAVEL Music for two pianos []: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Music for two pianos

Introduction and allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet (1905)
Rapsodie espagnole (1908)
Entre cloches (1897)
Ma mère líoye (1910)
Ouverture de Shéhérazade (1899)
Frontispice for poème de Vardar (1918)
La Valse (1920)
Jennifer Micallef and Glen Inanga
Recorded July 2001, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK.


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Jennifer Micallef and Glen Inanga have been playing together as a piano duo since 1994. They were both students at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and since then have won numerous prizes and given concerts all over Europe, with others planned worldwide. Listening to them here I can well imagine the thrilling effect they must have on a live audience.

A glance at the list of works shows that almost all of the music on this disc exists also in orchestral versions. In some cases the two-piano arrangement was made after the orchestral work was completed, in others the two-piano version came first. Leaving aside the quality of the performances here, how many of us will want to listen to these pieces in their two-piano form? We may enjoy playing Beethoven symphonies in four-hand arrangements, but would we go to a concert to hear them? And Ravel, of course, was a master of orchestration. Well, the answer to the question, as is often the case, is not at all clear.

The disc opens with the ravishing Introduction and Allegro, and so perfectly is this piece conceived in its original form that I expected it to be one of the works which would suffer most from a lack of instrumental colour. But I was surprised how well it works, and how little I missed the other instruments. The two-piano arrangement is by Ravel himself, and one piano plays the harp part and the other the rest. The players give a most sensitive performance here, alive to every change of mood, wistful and touching in the opening pages, scintillating at the end. Nobody would be disappointed by it.

Continuing with the pieces in the order in which they appear on the disc, we pass to the Rapsodie espagnole, which is listed on the back cover as the "original version for two pianos". This, as Robert Matthew-Walkerís booklet notes make clear, is wrong. Only the third movement, Habañera, was originally a two-piano piece, and Ravel inserted an orchestrated version of it into his Rapsodie espagnole. According to Francis Poulenc, writing in 1963, Ravel was unhappy with the orchestral version of this movement, but those who know the Rapsodie in its orchestral form will find, I think, that this is one of those works where the wonderful range of colour, so subtle, so evocative, which the composer draws out of the orchestra, is cruelly lacking. Nothing can take away, however, the virtuosity and conviction of the two players in this performance which culminates in a breathtaking final Feria.

Entre cloches, as its title suggests, is composed largely of bell sounds, either loud and insistent, as at the opening, or gentler and more distant later and at the end. Itís an affecting piece which was first published together with the Habañera previously discussed. Itís certainly worth hearing by Ravel admirers and completists.

Ma mère líoye can seem less sophisticated than it really is, especially given that long passages of it are quite easy from a technical point of view. The Micallef/Inanga duo give a performance in which tempi are on the rapid side and pedalling is limited. Listening to Laurence Fromentin and Dominique Plancade on an EMI Classics Début disc, recorded more distantly and in a rather more reverberant acoustic, the music takes on greater warmth and charm. Itís partly to do with tempo Ė the French pair take a little more time on each one of the five short movements Ė but more to do with articulation and pedalling, where the French players seek out a less analytical sound which allows for a more overtly expressive approach. The music thus seems less cold, which some may find, though I donít count among their number, less authentically like Ravel. If you have the same reaction to this performance as I do, you might agree that this is the only weakness in an otherwise outstanding disc: an occasional preference for technical brilliance, a reluctance to linger, moving onwards when letting the music breathe a little more might have worked better. Ravel did not wear his heart on his sleeve Ė he said himself that Basques do not do this Ė but the heart was certainly there, and on this disc we might sometimes think he hid it too well.

One of Ravelís most beautiful works is the early set of orchestral songs entitled Shéhérazade. He had intended to write an opera on this subject, but the project was never completed, and those songs along with the Overture on this disc were the two works which came out of it. While whatever oriental atmosphere to be found in the songs is extremely subtle, the Overture, originally composed for orchestra, contains a fair bit of whole-tone writing which tries, but without much conviction, to evoke the oriental setting. Similarly the energetic passages communicate more bluster than power. The piece runs for over thirteen minutes, so the planned opera was presumably a large-scale affair.

Frontispice, a tiny little work, was totally new to me and I have found no other reference to it. Robert Matthew-Walker tells us that this "curious fragment Ö was written to preface, musically, a collection of war poems by Ricciotto Canudo." Itís certainly curious: it opens with a sinuous, constantly repeated ostinato pattern progressively more and more ornamented, and closes with a crescendo of dramatic chords. Iím not sure that I would have identified the composer in a blind tasting. And then we note that a fifth hand is required. At least one of the five is played on this disc by Christian Sterling.

La Valse is given a most brilliant performance full of breathtaking virtuosity and risk-taking, but the orchestral version has so much more to offer, and the pursuit of brilliance at the expense of sentiment leads to a waltz wherein Ravelís own admittedly very sardonic version of Viennese lilt is in rather short supply.
William Hedley


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