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Concertos for Two Pianos
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)

Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932) [19:19]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)

Second Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion (1961) [20:16]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)

Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra (1943) [25:25]
Quattro Mani: Susan Grace; Alice Rybak (pianos)
John Kinzle; David Colson; Michael Tetreault (percussion)
Colorado College Summer Music Festival Orchestra/Scott Yoo
rec. June 2006 (Bartók; Poulenc), September 2006 (Milhaud), Packard Auditorium, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, USA. DDD
BRIDGE 9224 [65:21]

Quattro Mani are new to me. The duo were formed in 1989 and if the quoted reviews are anything to go by they have already made quite a name for themselves with recordings of George Crumb and Poul Ruders (both for Bridge). Alice Rybak combines her teaching role on the staff of the University of Coloradoís Lamont School of Music with that of a solo player and collaborative artist. The other half of the duo, Susan Grace, also combines playing and teaching at Colorado College, as well as being director of the annual Colorado College Summer Music Festival.

The festival, founded in 1984, brings together established artists and some of the most talented young musicians from conservatories and music schools in the United States and abroad for a period of intensive study and performance. This disc is one of the products of the 2006 event.

The Poulenc, composed for an international festival in Venice in 1932, is a characteristic mix of popular music of the Parisian streets and a more formal compositional style. The Allegro begins with the musical equivalent of a pratfall before launching into a rhythmic passage for pianos and orchestra. This Chaplinesque mood is soon replaced by a more sober, almost hypnotic, one dominated by repeated piano figures and orchestral interjections. There is even a hint of oriental harmonies (the Balinese gamelan) before the movement ends as abruptly as it began.

The delicate almost Mozartian introduction to the Larghetto reminds us of Poulencís neoclassical credentials but his irreverent alter ego just canít resist those cheeky, dissonant harmonies. Itís a strange but delectable mix and the pianists bring it off rather well. The orchestral playing under Scott Yoo is fine, if not particularly polished, but then this is Poulenc so the occasional roughness is not out of place.

The Allegro finale takes us back to the rumbustiousness of the first movement. The extrovert piano writing is punctuated by raspberries from the brass (Les Biches not too far away, perhaps) and there are some more muted jazzy piano interludes, heard as if from outside a smoky café. The final carillon-like piano figures are rudely interrupted in mid flow by a typically arbitrary orchestral outburst.

The close recording is not particularly detailed but it does suit the percussive nature of the music. The piano sound is bright, but not excessively so, and the overall soundstage is not very deep. This is not a problem in the two French pieces but it does mean that subtle orchestral colours are obscured, especially in the Bartók. That said the quirkiness of the writing is admirably demonstrated, the brass suitably raucous when required.

Darius Milhaud is probably best known for his ballets, the surrealist, tango-inspired Le Boeuf sur le Toit (1919) and the jazzy La Création du Monde (1923). His second concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra, was written nearly 20 years after Bartókís pivotal concerto for similar forces, so one is tempted to compare the two.

The first movement of the Milhaud Ė Alerte Ė.is certainly much closer to Bartók in its percussive piano writing and folk-like rhythms. The percussionists underpin the brittle piano melodies with their sharp interjections; this is quite at odds with the more elegiac second movement, Tendre et ardente, where the percussive edge may not be as sharp but the colliding piano phrases still create an edge of their own.

The piano sound is rather more upfront than before (the Milhaud was recorded at a later date) and may be too forward for some tastes. The percussionists also make their presence felt but the focus is very much on the extended dialogue between Rybak and Grace, who play with considerable flair and a real sense of rapport.

The percussion takes over at the start of the third movement Ė marked Allègre Ė and there are hints here of Milhaudís interest in the music of Brazil. That said it has a distinctive flavour all of its own and ends with a pile-driving coda for pianos and combined percussion.

The Bartók, with its muted but menacing opening drum rolls, is less manic, more measured, than the Milhaud and Poulenc. Grace and Rybak have no trouble with the musicís Magyar rhythms and long crescendos and they convey a real sense of excitement here. By contrast the piano sound on the Argerich/Freire recording with the Concertgebouw under David Zinman (Philips Duo 446557) is somewhat recessed but what it loses in immediacy it gains in subtlety. Here the astonishing range of colours and textures is superbly rendered by percussionists Jan Labordus and Jan Pustjens.

There is no doubt the Bartók is the masterpiece here. It is supremely assured, rigorously argued. Take the spectral opening to the Lento, for instance; it suggests a strange half-light that simply isnít part of the language of the other works on this disc. This is music of an altogether darker hue (it is a wartime piece after all). There is also a strong sense of musical ebb and flow in this concerto and conductor Scott Yoo certainly does a good job of keeping the tension high.

There is no lack of momentum in the Allegro either, with its exhilarating opening and percussion-dominated climaxes. Throughout Quattro Mani play with commendable power and clarity, the percussionists less colourful than their Concertgebouw rivals but just as committed and energetic.

If you want a more revealing performance of the Bartók you must look elsewhere, but one canít deny this is still high-voltage stuff. Add the less well known Poulenc and Milhaud piano duos and you have an entertaining disc that should appeal to all lovers of the genre.

Dan Morgan


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