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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto in D minor for two pianos and orchestra FP61 [20:51]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Scottish Ballad, op. 26 [15:09]
Claude DEBUSSY (1913-1976)
Première Suite d’orchestre for piano four hands [30:57]
Duo pianistico di Padova (Leonora Armellini and Mattia Ometto), Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto/Luigi Piovano

The ‘star’ of this recording is, inevitably, the Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos, certainly one of his loveliest and most attractive pieces. It feels an appropriate choice, since it was composed for Venice in 1932, and the soloists and orchestra on this CD all have strong connections with that part of Italy.

It’s an interesting work; though Poulenc’s sense of humour is never too far away, it nevertheless has an urgent, concentrated character. The central Larghetto is meltingly beautiful, while the outer movements have a hectic feel, with moments of lyrical relaxation.

Numerous writers have referred to what they perceive as the gamelan-like passages in the first movement. I’m never entirely convinced by that, but there’s no doubt that the gently undulating piano writing in such moments, together with unusual touches of orchestration, for example those squeaky solo ‘cello harmonics, do give the music a mysterious and gently exotic character.

The Larghetto is played with great sensitivity, but I was disappointed that the recording didn’t differentiate spatially between the two pianos – much of the delight in this movement comes from the conversation between them. But there’s no doubting the quality of these two soloists, and the close understanding they have.

The Britten Scottish Ballad of 1941 was composed in the USA, where Britten and Pears had gone in the months before the outbreak of war. It’s not a particularly flattering portrait of Scotland – if that’s what it is supposed to be. The opening brought to my mind a famous quote from P.G. Wodehouse – “It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine”. Rather grumbling, dyspeptic music; but things do improve somewhat as folk-like material begins to emerge. Not one of Britten’s most lovable works however.

The orchestra has been dismissed for the final item, the Première Suite d’Orchestre. The title needs a little explaining, and the booklet tells us that the work exists in two forms; an incomplete version for, as one would expect from the title, full orchestra. It is also to be found in complete form for piano duet as here. This is a very early piece of Debussy, comfortably pre-dating even the Arabesques or the Suite Bergamasque. I still think it would be identifiable to the ‘innocent ear’ as music by Debussy, though in all honesty it’s not terribly interesting in itself, more so as an example of a very great composer in his earliest creative phase. The piano writing, however, is delicious, and these two fine artists make the most of the delicate textures in, for example, Rêve, the third movement.

This then is a disc with much to recommend it; well prepared and well executed performances of one true masterpiece, plus two unfamiliar early works from major 20th century composers.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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