Ravel’s formidable skills as an orchestrator – the ubiquitous
Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition comes to mind –
are eclipsed only by his talent for transcribing orchestral
pieces for two and four hands. Indeed, few composers are so
successful at transferring their unique sound-worlds – with
all their colours and nuances – to the keyboard. And while this
reissued recording might be deemed short measure at just over
56 minutes, a preliminary audition suggests it offers excellent
value in many other respects.
I have come across Stephen Coombs before – he has recorded a
number of solo recitals for Hyperion – but as a duo he and Christopher
Scott are unfamiliar to me. As for this repertoire, the Kontarskys
on DG and Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier on Chandos are well
worth hearing, as they offer very different perspectives on
these colourful works. The first part of Rapsodie Espagnole,
one of the composer’s many tributes to Spain, is a sultry piece
of night music, its slow, steady heartbeat beautifully sustained.
The nimble interplay of Malagueña is no less impressive;
and although the music’s bright flourishes are a little fierce
at times, those distinctive bass rhythms are very well caught.
Indeed, Habañera is tastefully done, Ravel at his most
suave and sohisticated; as for Feria, the volatile dynamics
of the piece are superbly judged, the playing as crisp and thrustful
as one could hope for.
So, a delectable entrée, but what of the main course
and dessert? The Introduction et Allegro – originally
written for harp, string quartet, flute and clarinet – has a
delicacy, a genteel charm, that’s most artfully mimicked on
the piano. One can only marvel at Ravel’s forensic attention
to instrumental character – listen to those harp swirls, the
flutter of flute, the phrases shaped with sensitivity and style.
As for Entres cloches, from Sites auriculaires – originally
composed for two pianos – there’s no sign of the disaster
that afflicted the premiere in 1898, when both pianists were
less than perfectly synchronised. These bells ring out with
confidence, the piece played with thrilling attack and energy.
No ringing endorsements for Ravel’s first orchestral work, though;
Shéhérazade - Ouverture de féerie was savaged by an early
critic, who dismissed it as ‘un gauche démarquage de l'école
russe’. Which may explain why Ravel suppressed the piece, resurrecting
part of the title in his later song-cycle. And despite the mention
of fairies, Mendelssohn this isn’t; in fact, there’s a tough,
declamatory – and sometimes motoric – element to this music,
which is probably what alienated those who were expecting something
more diaphanous. Coombs’ and Scott’s playing is clean-limbed,
rhythms precise and dynamics well-controlled. The pounding bass
dissonances are especially arresting. Yes, this may not be as
harmonically inventive as some of the works here, but that matters
little when the performance is as taut and compelling as this.
The intriguingly titled Frontispiece is just that, a
brief – but intricate – preface to a collection of poems by
the Paris-based Italian poet Ricciotto Canudo. A mere 15 bars
long it calls for a fifth hand, provided here by Tokyo-born
pianist Yuki Matsuzawa. From a delicate set of chimes it builds
to a simple, understated climax. Nothing reticent about La
Valse. Originally written for Diaghilev – and played to
him in this two-piano reduction – it’s long been seen as a homage
to the Viennese waltz; that said, some scholars have suggested
it’s a rather darker reflection on the slaughter just ended.
Coombs and Scott certainly give the dance just the right amount
of lilt, those percussive intrusions as disfiguring as they
should be. It’s an astonishing piece, a stroboscopic nightmare
worthy of German Expressionist cinema.
This is a most attractive collection that sits somewhere between
the Horowitz-like flamboyance of the Kontarskys and the cool
elegance of Lortie and Mercier. If only the disc were better
filled – Ma Mère l'Oye or Boléro would have fitted
easily enough – it would be even more desirable. One small caveat,
though; the liner-notes are a little scrappy – low cost need
not mean low rent – and details of the music are much more useful
than potted biographies of composers and performers. Quibbles
aside, this is a terrific disc – and a bargain to boot. Buy