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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Dances and Fairy Tales - Arrangements for marimba and vibraphone
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-1917)* [23:00]
Ma mère l’Oye, 5 pièces enfantines (1910) [14:44]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899) [5:31]
Joint Venture Percussion Duo: Rachel Xi Zhang (marimba), Laurent Warnier (marimba & vibraphone)
*with Nancy Zeltsman (marimba)
rec. September 2014, Mix One Studios, Boston, USA
Reviewed as 24/44.1 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-9054 CD [44:08]

There’s nothing quite like a well-presented percussion album. BIS have produced a few, notably with the Kroumata Ensemble; indeed, Kroumata Encores (BIS-1452) was one of the discs that opened my ears to the joys of Super Audio. Naxos have also contributed to the genre with highly memorable collections from US college groups, several of which I’ve reviewed on these pages. It’s worth noting that this Ravel recording is not a BIS original, but CEO Robert von Bahr was so impressed with the master tape that he agreed to issue these performances under the BIS banner.

So, who are these promising players? Rachel Xi Zhang, from China, and the Luxembourg-born Laurent Warnier formed the Joint Venture Percussion Duo in 2007. They went on to win the Bernard Haitink Prize at Amsterdam’s Vriendenkrans Competition in 2011, to which must be added a number of grants and scholarships. The pair have also premiered new percussion pieces and given concerts and master-classes in Europe, China and the United States.

Despite the catalogue number and short playing time this is not one of BIS’s download-only releases. At the time of writing the CD was available for pre-order at full price. I’d baulk at paying top whack for just 44 minutes of music when eClassical’s per-second charging model prices the lossless download at a very sensible $6.34; even at post-Brexit exchange rates that’s a mere £4.83. It’s also worth noting that although this is ‘only’ a 24/44.1 recording a quick listen to the first track suggests it’s as good as anything BIS might have produced themselves.

Not only are these talented players, they’re also accomplished arrangers; in this case it’s Ravel in dance and fairy-tale mode. They start with the six-movement memorial piece Le Tombeau de Couperin, originally written for solo piano. Their account of the opening Prélude is a joy to hear; it has a pleasing blend of fluidity, colour and supple rhythms and the instruments are given plenty of room in which to breathe. Not only that, the stereo spread is beautifully judged and timbral sophistication – a hallmark of so many BIS recordings – is very much in evidence here as well.

If one were to sample just one part of this magical arrangement I’d suggest the lovely, multi-hued little Fugue, in which the duo are joined by Nancy Zeltsman on marimba. What mouth-watering flavours, dark chocolate at the bottom end and mint crisp at the top. More important, there’s a wonderful sense of musicality here, of phrases naturally shaped and dynamics so finely calibrated; that’s particularly true of the clean-limbed Forlane and the vital, varied Rigaudon. Such is the quality of these arrangements that the latter is made to sound remarkably like a piano at times. As for the Menuet it has grace and glow, the Toccata commendable for swirl and flourish.

Goodness, this is terrific playing and sound. That’s also true of the duo’s arrangement of the five pieces for children, Ma mère l’Oye, originally written as a piano duet. Sleeping Beauty – framed as a shimmering pavane – is followed by the pellucid tones of Tom Thumb and the mincing chinoiserie of Empress of the Pagodas. This and The Fairy Garden are particularly well suited to the exotic sonorities of the marimba and vibraphone; indeed, both had me in goose-bumps. Even the ubiquitous – and all too often lugubrious – Pavane pour une infante défunte sounds fresh and engaging in these players’ nimble hands.

In short, this is a class act. I’ve always liked the fact that BIS include an instrumentarium in their booklets; in this case they list the various marimbas, vibraphones and mallets used. Unusually the liner-notes aren’t credited.

A treat for audiophiles and percussion fanciers alike; a duo to watch.

Dan Morgan



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