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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
En blanc et noir (1915) [15:29]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Three Pieces for Two Pianos (1976) [20:01]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Visions de l’Amen (1943) [49:18]
Klavierduo Roelke Gremmelspacher (Irmela Roelcke & Axel Gremmelspacher)
rec. 12-15 March 2020, Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
GENUIN GEN21714 [84:54]

This programme was developed for an interdisciplinary research project called “Complexity in Science, Culture and Society”. This need not hold us up for long however, and the idea of ‘complexity in music’ is less about what might be considered ‘difficult’ music in this case. It is summed up nicely via a reference to Hans Poser in the interview notes for this release: “...the concept of emergence is central: complex structures and organisational units give rise to higher-level systems that can be neither predicted nor calculated. Complexity generates something new.”

Claude Debussy’s En blanc et noir is given a refined and nuanced performance here. This is a terrific piece for two pianos, composed when Debussy was in failing health, but at a moment of creative energy while at Pourville on the Normandy coast in the summer of 1915. The shadow of war was nearby however, and there are many passages of unsettling darkness in this work. Debussy defiantly quotes La Marseillaise in the second movement, and the final Scherzando introduces elements of playfulness while constantly ratcheting up the tension so we’re never sure if we’re about to enter cakewalk or catastrophe. This recording captures these layers of symbolic meaning and subtle and sudden change superbly.

I thought I knew most of Ligeti’s music, but the Three Pieces for Two Pianos is a rarity that I had almost entirely forgotten about for some reason. There are typical Ligeti processes at work here. The first piece, Monument, superimposes rhythms, turning the two pianos into giant metronomes whose notes tick loudly and battle with each other relentlessly. The second piece is titled Self Portrait with Reich and Riley (with Chopin in the Background), and it engages in a comparable idea but with a gentler texture focussing more on the middle register of the pianos and setting up cyclical ostinati that shift and meet in a phasing pattern in the first half, developing further along into a section that calls up the remarkable finale of Chopin’s Sonata Op 35. The third piece, In a gentle flowing movement explores those descending scales and contrary motion that are also features of some of Ligeti’s Études, ending in an enigmatic chorale-like fadeout. The interaction between two players with two different instruments in this recording makes it preferable to Fredrik Ullén’s otherwise entirely magnificent BIS recording of Ligeti’s complete piano music (review), in which for this work he overdubs himself on the same instrument.

Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen is even more of a cornerstone of the two-piano repertoire than En blanc et noir, and demands not only tons of technique but also an ability to communicate radiant spiritual ecstasy. Roelke/Gremmelspacher do well on the first count, while at the same time maintaining a sense of measure and control which shaves off a top level of risk and surrender in the violence of the penultimate Vision de Jugement and final Amen de la Consommation. If you want to hear detail in the music then this is amongst the best I have heard, but if you want to be transported into realms of the beyond then this may not quite do it for you. The quieter Amen du Désir is truly gorgeous, and where this recording scores is in the character of the two instruments used; “the second piano part on the instrument that has a bit more mature tonal warmth and personality. The first piano part, with its radiant, celestial sounds, is the perfect fit for the brighter and more brilliant instrument.” This is however one case where some more distance between listener and instruments would have helped.

Ralph van Raat and Hĺkon Austbř give very good performances of both the Debussy and the Messiaen on their Naxos recording (review), with timings for each movement pretty similar to those of Klavierduo Roelke Gremmelspacher (Irmela Roelcke & Axel Gremmelspacher). The Naxos recorded balance is a little more distanced and with more acoustic resonance, but Roelke/Gremmelspacher’s more intimate placing allows for a more detailed examination of colour contrasts in the piano sound, which makes for a win in the Debussy. From a selection of the oft-recorded Visions de l’Amen I have more often than not found myself returning to Maarten Bon and Reinbert de Leeuw’s atmospheric and impassioned recording on the Naďve label (review), while of course being aware that there are many other fine versions around. This one cooks the blood much more than the rather analytical Klavierduo Roelke Gremmelspacher - just compare the Amen des étoiles if you need convincing - but there are of course more ways to skin a cat. This is a fine recording and a very worthwhile programme, so if it attracts then by all means give it a go.

Dominy Clements


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