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.
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.