Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Complete Works for Piano Duet
CD 1 (all two pianos)
Introduction and Allegro (1905) [11:03]
Rapsodie espagnole (1907) [15:39]
Entre Cloches (1897) [3:42]
Boléro (1928) [14:36]
CD 2
Ma Mère l’Oye. piano duet (1910) [15:56]
Fanfare, piano duet (1927) [1:15]
Ouverture de Shéhérazade, piano duet (1889) [12:41]
Frontispièce, two pianos, five hands (with David Gardiner) (1918) [1:54]
La Valse, two pianos (1920) [11:40]
Ingryd Thorson, Julian Thurber (piano duo)
rec. Varde Gymnasium, Denmark, June 1987
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94176 [45:00 + 43:36]

Maurice Ravel’s father was an engineer and an amateur pianist. He strongly encouraged his son’s early musical inclinations. It was likely with his father that he first learned to play and enjoy works for four hands. That pleasure blossomed in his mid-teens when he met Ricardo Viñes (1875-1943), also a piano student, and the two explored all the duo piano literature they could find. Ravel clearly loved the format from a very early age.

Ravel composed at the piano and so it’s understandable that every one of his orchestral works, with one exception, appeared in a piano version first. That exception was Boléro, a late work that Ravel described, no doubt tongue-in-cheek, as “a masterpiece … without any music in it”. Ida Rubenstein had asked Ravel for a ballet score in 1928, and his plan was to orchestrate part of Albéniz’s Iberia. But there were problems with copyright, so Ravel created something new and experimental, a pairing of two 16-bar phrases repeated nine times without any increase in tempo. The subsequent piano version concludes the first of these two discs, and is a revelation to the casual Ravel fan.

There are other ear-openers in this set. The Introduction and Allegro and La Valse are both intriguing in their piano duo versions. We are familiar with the former as a piece for string quartet, harp, clarinet and flute, and with the latter in its orchestral version, probably as close as Ravel got to writing a symphony. And there are lesser known gems as well. A piece called Entre Cloches gives the listener a sense of standing between two bells, experiencing the resulting contrasts in rhythm and tone. The pianists who premiered it could not deal with the deliberately misplaced beats. Frontispièce is for piano five hands, and is the only work Ravel wrote in the three years immediately following the death in 1917 of his mother to whom he was very close. It reveals an apparent confusion, with an undefined structure, very unlike all the rest of his work. Stravinsky’s description of Ravel as a “Swiss watchmaker”, though intended as an insult, contains some truth.

Ma Mère L’Oye is Ravel’s perfect evocation of the poetry of childhood. Rhapsodie Espagnole was written at the beginning of what might be called his Spanish period. Even though his mother was Spanish-Basque, Ravel didn’t actually visit the country until he was 49. Nevertheless Falla described his Spanish music as “subtly genuine”.

The notes accompanying this set say nothing about the performers other than their names, but their web-site describes them as a British-born husband and wife team who first partnered as students at the Royal College of Music, London, then went separate ways, only to join permanently in 1976. They now live in Denmark and record there for Paula Records. Their first recording, of Rachmaninov’s complete works for two pianos and four hands, earned eminent praise from one magazine.

This is their second recording, made in 1987 (Producer and Engineer Karin Jurgensen) and licensed to Brilliant Classics in 2011. The playing is clear and crisp except in the very loud passages when the sound becomes a bit muddy – likely due to the recording. The notes were written by Ingryd Thorson, and provide brief but excellent background. All-in-all this is a set worth having, especially for those interested in how Ravel, the master orchestrator, moved among instrumentations.

Paul Kennedy

A set worth having, especially for those interested in how Ravel, the master orchestrator, moved among instrumentations.