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“B” Like Britain
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Hardanger (1927) [3:31]
The Poisoned Fountain (1928) [5:19]
Moy Mell (The Happy Plain) - An Irish tone-poem (1916) [9:55]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Two Pieces Op.23: Introduction and Rondo alla Burlesca, Mazurka Elegiaca (1940-41) [14:49]
York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Theme & Variations for two pianos Op.139 (1951) [13:55]
Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Divertimento for two pianos (Four Piece Suite) (1974) [12:03]
Ludmilla Berlinskaya, Arthur Ancelle (pianos)
rec. 2018, The Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire
Two Pianos Originals Project - Volume 3
MELODIYA MELCD1002565 [59:43]

This is the third disc in a series collectively called “The 2 Pianos Originals Project” from the Russian pianists Ludmilla Berlinskaya and Arthur Ancelle. The website dedicated to the duo – they record as individual performers as well – shows clearly that they are building a considerable discography quite apart from this specific project. The earlier volumes focussed on French music from the Belle Époque and “Russian Last Romantics”. This new disc is titled “B” Like Britain but the slight clumsiness of that name masks a very interesting programme of music superbly performed. The idea here is that all the composers are both British and their surnames begin with the letter B. I suspect the programme might have been chosen before that ‘coincidence’ was noted. Certainly there is no sense of contrivance here in the planning of the repertoire. What is most notable is the range of musical and expressive styles on display.

The liner notes fail to mention that all four composers were very considerable concert-standard pianists in their own right; this is reflected in the brilliance of their keyboard writing and the high level of virtuosity it demands. In this regard Berlinskaya and Ancelle are quite superb. The unanimity of their playing is flawless not just technically but expressively. Clearly, these are performances and interpretations that have been created with great care and thought.

The bulk of Bax’s music for two pianos was written for another husband and wife piano duo, Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson – although not the earliest of the works given here, Moy Mell. Bartlett and Robertson did record Moy Mell, Hardanger and the two-piano sonata in later years. Most of the music on this disc is available in alternative recordings but this is a unique sequence and musically the equal of any other version I have heard. The three Bax works are intelligently chosen for the range of musical styles and influences they portray. The shortest, Hardanger, opens the disc and is rightly characterised by the liner note writer as a homage to Grieg while retaining the harmonic colouring of Debussy. From the very outset, the articulate brilliance of the playing is evident.

The most comprehensive survey of Bax’s music for piano duo is provided by Ashley Wass and Martin Roscoe on Naxos. The only other disc dedicated to this repertoire is played by Seta Tanyel and Jeremy Brown on Chandos; I find Wass and Roscoe superior in every respect. But Wass and Roscoe have to bow to Berlinskaya and Ancelle for the clarity, articulation and sheer colour of their playing. In music as complex, richly ornamented and texturally lush as this, those are precious virtues. I have never heard this music better performed than here.

After the boisterousness of Hardanger, The Poisoned Fountain is a more atmospheric and subdued work. Here, Bax the orchestral master can be heard. He never orchestrated this piano duo work but you can hear so many of his orchestral fingerprints. There are shimmering textures, themes that lurch up from the deepest bass with a volcanic power, and towering climaxes rich in drama and foreboding. Again this Russian duo absolutely have the spirit of the work captured to a tee. Their collective technique allows the arabesquing ornamentations in the writing to have direction and intent rather than simply filling a musical space.

Moy Mell is probably the best known of Bax’s works in this genre. The title translates as “The Happy Plain”. Bax himself saw this as one of three works in which he explored the idea of a Celtic/Pagan paradise. The other two works are The Garden of Fand and In the Faery Hills. This is indeed the “Celtic Twilight” that is often referenced in Bax’s works, but it is all the more telling here by the date of its composition: 1916. This of course was in the aftermath of the infamous Easter uprising for which Bax had much sympathy. So the work seeks an idealised Irish paradise in the midst of political turmoil and death. Again, Berlinskaya and Ancelle are remarkably successful in finding this rapturous, visionary quality. Often, Bax’s music can seem discursive or lacking direction. Here, allied with the supreme technical address the players give the music an utterly convincing shape and forward pull. I love their playing of the very closing bars, evaporating like morning mist into gently ecstatic rapture. Another superb interpretation, indeed the best I know.

The Britten work that follows it – also inspired by Bartlett and Robertson – comes from a richly creative period in that composer’s life. For Britten this was the early 1940s. The companion works by Opus number are the Sinfonia da Requiem, Diversions for Piano left hand and orchestra, the Seven Sonnets of Michangelo, the String Quartet No.1 and The Scottish Ballad. Enduring masterpieces such as the Hymn to St. Cecilia, Ceremony of Carols, Serenade for tenor, horn and strings and Peter Grimes were just around the compositional corner. There are fewer recordings of these works to compare. I only have heard one other version of one of the movements. In its own right, this is another thrillingly dynamic and compelling performance. Britten circa 1940 is more overtly muscular and kinetic than Bax. The liner note writer describes it as neo-baroque, which I am not sure I hear. Certainly in the first movement, Introduction and Rondo alla Burlesca, this is a hard-edged steely Britten. I wonder if his time in America had exposed him to more modernist, impersonal styles of writing which seems to delight in its own pulsating energy while keeping any kind of explicit personal emotion – so clearly evident in every page of the Bax – under tight rein. This is music which seems to delight in its own athletic vigour. Worth mentioning here is the excellence of the Melodiya recording, which provides a perfect vehicle for the playing of Berlinskaya and Ancelle. Sound engineer Maria Soboleva has captured the sound and balance of the two instruments superbly: very detailed and clear but without the tone hardening or becoming congested at the biggest climaxes.

The second of the two pieces, Mazurka Elegiaca, was written the following year as Britten’s contribution to a collection of new pieces by 17 composers as a ‘Homage to Paderewski’. The liner note writer departs on a slightly florid description hearing “the nostalgic melancholy so characteristic of Chopin… shrouded in the haze of the English shores”. Perhaps not. Again, the interest for me is the brooding yet dispassionate detachment of the work. I see that Britten recorded this work with Clifford Curzon (I must try and hear that). With performers of that stature, it must surely be top-notch but then so is this new recording.

York Bowen’s reputation, on disc at least, is being rehabilitated in recent years. Even his staunchest admirers would surely accept that he rarely pushed the boundaries of musical form or content. This is evidenced by his Theme & Variations Op.139 recorded here. Although written after both the Britten and the Bax, it harks back to an earlier aesthetic than either. But where that might have seemed a failing in the 1950s, now it is possible to listen to and appreciate the music for what it is, not what it is not. Michael Dussek and John Reid included it on a valuable survey of music, mainly for two pianos, released on Dutton about a decade ago. Interestingly, Dutton made a production/engineering choice to separate the two instruments in the stereo picture much more clearly than Melodiya do here. In one way this does allow the listener without a score to hear easily how Bowen divides out the musical material. Melodiya integrate the instruments into one single pianistic voice. Dussek and Reid are very good indeed – as is the Dutton engineering. Perhaps they have to cede the last jot of bravura flamboyance to Berlinskaya and Ancelle in the extrovert 2nd and 4th variations but I like them a lot in the romantically surging Poco lento tranquillo of variation 5. This is where one is reminded that Bowen was called the English Rachmaninov. That might be considered a good or bad thing; personally I like it very much. One little thought: the following variation 6 inhabits more of a Baxian world to my ear. The transformation of the theme has more than a passing resemblance to the opening of Bax’s Piano Sonata No.2. Bowen’s control of form across these nine variations is very impressive. I particularly like his insertion of a pensive Interlude – Lento, all murky tolling bells and atmospheric desolation before the exhilarating variation 9 Finale - Allegro con fuoco. The sheer attack and clarity in Berlinskaya and Ancelle’s playing continues to delight. Make no mistake. The Dutton disc is by no means superseded but it is hard not to be swept away by the thrilling pianism on display here.

At first glance, the concluding work on the disc, Richard Rodney Bennett’s Divertimento for Two Pianos, might seem like a light-weight encore, especially when one considers the titles of the four movements: Samba triste, Country Blues, Ragtime Waltz and Finale - Tempo di hard rock. But if one searches below the superficially popular vernacular of the melody, harmony and rhythm deployed by the composer, it becomes clear this is a skilfully crafted, rather sophisticated work, and great fun to listen to. Berlinskaya and Ancelle devote just as much care and skill to this as the rest of the programme. As far as I can, tell there does not appear to be another commercial recording available. If so, I find it quite remarkable because this is the very finest kind of light(er) music – superbly crafted, melodically instantly appealing and hugely enjoyable. The fact that it chooses to employ a deliberately popular-culture musical language will no doubt make it unacceptable for some classical music adherents. For me, it makes an uplifting conclusion to a simply superb disc.

This is the kind of disc that will make me seek out earlier and future releases by these artists. On every level, from choice of repertoire to programming to performance and recording, it is a triumph. I might take issue with the cover shot: the two pianists stand smilingly outside an old red telephone kiosk dressed incongruously in white shirts and black braces. The phonebox might be an iconic British image but this cover is a triumph of concept over content. Never mind. I liked the rest of the packaging, a simple cardboard digipack with the liner booklet (in Russian, English and French) tucked in the left hand sleeve. The CD is printed to look like an old LP which, for no rational reason, I like as well. Cover aside, my tiniest other quibble is the slightly short running time at less than an hour. With playing this good, it makes for a greedy listener who wants more!

But it is musically where this disc triumphs, with breathtaking interpretations of all the repertoire on offer – the familiar and the less so. A strong Record of the Year contender.

Nick Barnard

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