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Four Hands France TOCN0007
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Four Hands for France
Stephanie McCallum & Erin Helyard (piano duet - 1853 Erard piano)
rec. 20 & 21 January 2021, Phoenix Central Park, Sydney
Notes included

Four hands on one piano was one of the major forms of domestic entertainment in the nineteenth century. It is perhaps a truism that playing four-hand works kept many marriages intact, but it was also the format through which many musicians and listeners first encountered the great orchestral and chamber works of the time, long before they were available in their original form.        

As Stephanie McCallum notes in her wonderful accompanying text for this disc, to which I shall again refer, writing for four hands also gave young composers a chance to experiment with larger forms and more complicated textures. N.B. an aspect of this disc that should be pointed out at the start is the use of an 1853 piano from the great French firm of Erard. Unlike today’s pianos, those made by Erard had their strings laid parallel to each other rather than with the more common higher strings over lower. This is the kind of piano that Chausson, Chaminade et al would have written for, and its clarity and lightness, as Ms. McCallum points out, are ideal for music with four hands.

Massenet wrote his Suite No 1 at the age 25, the first two pieces in the suite being an expansion of pieces for cello and piano from the year before. The suite is very enjoyable, with a first movement combining Massenet´s typical vocal line with Bachian elements and a central movement which seems to emanate from Scotland. The finale is in the composer’s mature style, as is to be expected given that his first great success, the opera La grande tante was written in that same year of 1867.

Chausson’s two Sonatines are also journeyman works, and were probably written for friends to play. The first is very amiable, but the second strikes deeper with its central andante, a set of ten variations on a Danish theme collected by Gade. Also amiable are the Deux Morceaux of Godard. The excerpts from Chaminade’s Pièces romantiques are mature works and all demonstrate the composer’s structural skills, but especially interesting is the Idylle arabe with its wonderful melody combined with the then-fashionable orientalism, and the equally impressive Sérénade d’automne, more convincing than many such evocations. At the opposite end of the emotional scale is Alkan’s arrangement of the Salterelle finale of his Sonate de chambre for cello and piano. Ms. McCallum has long been an Alkan specialist (review ~ review ~ review) and describes this piece as “terrifying”. Indeed, it is a predecessor of Danse Macabre that equals Saint-Saëns’.

Most of the works on this disc are first recordings, the exceptions being the Alkan and Chaminade pieces, but the Ropartz Petites pièces (in three sets) from 1903 are the major discovery here. Ropartz could justly be called the “musician laureate of Brittany”, although he spent decades of his long life in other parts of France. Pieces four through ten are inspired by poems of the Breton poet Edouard Beaufils (1868-1941) and the three sets together comprise a gradually more serious evocation of life in Brittany. The first set was written for the composer’s daughter Gaud (the Breton form of Marguerite) and are constructed with simple figures for the upper set of hands and more complex harmonizations in the lower. They are delightful examples of the unique French style of music for children, especially the concluding Children’s March. The second set, entitled Sons de cloches (Chimes of Bells) is far more serious. After a rather uninteresting depiction of the Angelus (cf. Vierne), Le glas is a picture of tolling funeral bells and Cloches du soir (Evening Bells) continues the melancholy mood, both superbly evocative. The third set of Petites pièces is untitled and consists of four pieces, not three. The opening Choral evokes the organ convincingly, adding an element of serenity while the evocative Tristesse (Sadness) deepens the emotional atmosphere in preparation for Intimité, a work of varied emotions, ending in contemplation. Par les champs (In the Fields) is a beautiful description of April and provides a cheerful ending to the Petites pièces.

The only word for the performances of Stephanie McCallum and Erin Halyard is “perfection”. Stephanie McCallum has many 19th Century French discs to her credit, and her fellow Australian Erin Helyard has demonstrated expertise in a variety of musical spheres, including his duo with Ms. McCallum. In terms of musicianship, coordination of performance, and sympathy for the repertoire, this recording is a stand-out and I can easily imagine the composers themselves applauding it if they were here today.

William Kreindler

Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-99)
Sonatines pour quatre mains, Op 2 (1879)* [20:53]
Sonatine No 1 in G major (1878)
1) No 1 Gaîment
2) No 2 Andante
3) No 3 Finale
Sonatine No 2 in D minor (1879)
4) No 1 Mouvement de marche
5) No 2 Variations sur un thème danois
6) No 3 Rondeau
Joseph GUY-ROPARTZ (1864-1955)
Petites Pièces (1903)* [25:30]
Pour Gaud
7) No 1 Andante
8) No 2 Lento
9) No 3 Allegretto
Sons de Cloches
10) No 4 L’Angelus
11) No 5 Le Glas
12) No 6 Cloches du Soir
Suite No 3
13) No 7 Choral
14) No 8 Tristesse
15) No 9 Intimité
16) No 10 Par les Champs
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Pièces pour le Piano à 4 Mains: 1re Suite, Op 11 (1867)* [8:14]
17) No 1 Andante
18) No 2 Allegretto quasi allegro
19) No 3 Andante
Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
20) Saltarelle, Op 47 (1856) [7:03]
Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1944)
Pièces romantiques, Op 55 (1890) [8:23]
21) No 1 Primavera
22) No 3 Idylle Arabe
23) No 4 Sérénade d’automne
Benjamin GODARD (1849-1895)
Deux morceaux, Op 137 (1893)* [2:45]
24) No 1 Pastorale mélancolique
25) No 2 Marche villageoise
* Premiere Recordings

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