I cannot recall Vladimir Ashkenazy being associated with the music of the French Impressionists until now. This teaming with his son Vovka provides an illuminating and exciting vision of these works.
The programme kicks off with Debussy and his three pieces under the collective heading of En blanc et noir. The first, ‘Avec emportement’ has the pianists vigorously dancing around each other in startling staccatos and lethargic legatos. The second, ‘Lent-sombre’ is just that - melancholic patterns turning macabre as the Ashkenazys explore their pianos’ bass sonorities. A dogged march marks the quicker middle section. It is easy to imagine, as Debussy intended, this central piece as a protest against the savageries of the Great War. In the concluding sardonic ‘Scherzando’, the two pianos counterpoint grotesque protests verging on the hysterical. The album’s note-writer, Roger Nichols, suggests, ‘Debussy’s awareness of his own declining health’ might have influenced this music.
Diaghilev’s ballet, Jeux was produced in 1913. Debussy provided a solo piano score for the dancers to learn from. He promised his publishers a two-piano version but never got round to complying. On this disc we hear the arrangement by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Tellingly it follows the substance and delicacy of Debussy’s orchestral version. The Ashkenazys, aided by occasional eerie cymbal brush-strokes, admirably convey the elusive, sensual, playful - almost cruelly playful at times - nature of the work.
Lindaraja was a response to Ravel’s ‘Habanera’, one of two of that composer’s Sites auriculaires. It is played as the third movement of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole on this CD (see below). Debussy, like Ravel, challenges the basic monotony of the Habanera form and creates imaginative diversity with subtle shifts of dynamic, tempi and inflection.
The Ashkenazys capture of Ravel’s individual and intricately-coalescing bell sonorities and rhythms in ‘Entre cloches’ is well-defined, softly enchanting and tantalizingly exciting. That said, in their climax, one wonders if their reading might not have been a little too loud and overwhelming.
It might come as a surprise to learn that Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole was originally written for two pianos and orchestrated by Ravel when he received complaints about the difficulty of his keyboard writing. As the Ashkenazys prove this version has colour and atmosphere enough. There are silvery, pellucid, sensual tones for the nocturne (‘Prélude à la nuit’). There’s also voluptuousness implicit in both the ‘Malaguena’ and the ‘Habanera’; how resourcefully the monotony of the circling ostinatos in these pieces are circumnavigated. Wildness, with a central wistful melancholy, informs the concluding ‘Feria’.
Ravel conversely arranged his orchestral ‘Poème choréographique’ - La Valse, for two pianos. It works very well in that form. The pianists nicely evoke the work’s spectral opening. They then sharply contrast the old-world Viennese glamour and sophistication - all chandelier-lit ballrooms, swirling ball gowns and dashing uniforms - with the contrasting sardonic bitterness and brutality Ravel later imposes on this waltz. As Roger Nichols suggests, it is “… a terrifying, Expressionist howl of anguish. Ravel forcibly denied it was inspired by the state of Vienna after the (Great) War; he did not deny (probably because no one had the temerity to suggest it to him) that it grew out of his experiences as a lorry driver during the war …’
see also review
by Bob Briggs (Nov RECORDING OF THE MONTH)