York2: One piano Four hands
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Le sacre du printemps (1913) [33:46]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Rapsodie espagnole (1907) [15:26]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) La mer (1905) [26:01]
Fiona York (piano); John York (piano)
rec. February 2010, Nimbus Foundation Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK. DDD.
NIMBUS NI5866 [75:21]
It’s amazing. It’s really amazing, what they do here. The four-hand transcriptions – not even two-piano! – do not sound derivative. They attain their own independent musical value. Well, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole always had that quality and these days you meet it more often in the piano form. But can you think about La mer without thinking about its orchestral colors? You would be surprised! OK, the orchestral version gives you a vivid impression of the sea, while the piano version, frankly, gives you a vivid impression of the orchestral one. But what a powerful, arresting and stunning impression!
In The Rite of Spring, rhythm is everything, and everything is rhythm. The chords, the trills, the bangs and the clangs – all this suits the piano perfectly and the piano is, after all, the most powerful percussion instrument. The texture is too dense for two hands – but quite coverable by four. It is not surprising, then, to learn that the four-hands version is actually the original: that’s why it sounds so natural. Rapsodie espagnole and La mer made the opposite journey: they were arranged from orchestral scores. But this was done by Ravel and Debussy themselves – and who understood that music better than the composers? And who understood the piano better than these two pianists?
As with figure-skating, I would separate the impression from this recording into two categories: technical and artistic and give the York duo top grades in both. Their piano is most versatile: roaring, rumbling, shouting and whispering. I hear piano-flute and piano-oboe, piano-strings and piano-brass. The four-hands music is different from the two-piano version in that the sound is so unified across the keyboard. When you have two pianos, you always hear two instruments: like two human voices; they are never completely identical. Here the listener encounters one keyboard ruled by a twenty-fingered virtuoso. There’s not the slightest mis-coordination, not in the wild rhythmic nightmare of Stravinsky and not in that most alive of scores, the music that does not have a single right angle, not a single straight line - La mer.
The performance is emotional without overload; powerful without hurting the ears. The phrases are always shaped. The proto-minimalistic stretches of the Rite are mesmerizing; Rapsodie espagnole really dances; and every sentence in La mer is sculptured. My only complaint is about some lack of refinement in the quieter places, especially in the Rapsodie. I’ve heard more poetic readings of Prélude à la nuit, and Malagueña has some clodhopping moments. Still, Habanera is very sensual; and if you don’t exclaim “Yeah!” after the last swirl of Feria, you are not my friend. There is more ex- than impressionism here but it’s dazzling.
The recording quality is excellent – close, present, resonant, thick. The low register is captured very well. The insert note (English only) is just perfect – it says neither too much nor too little. This is one of those performances that justify the existence of four-hand piano transcriptions of orchestral music. If I have not persuaded you yet, I’ll say this: when I listen to this La mer, I forget about the orchestral version. And if I drive, I have to stop: the Sea is in my eyes.

Oleg Ledeniov

One of those performances that justify the existence of four-hand piano transcriptions of orchestral music.