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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
En blanc et noir (1915) [14:55]
Jeux: poème dansé (1913) (transc. two pianos Jean-Efflam Bavouzet) [16:33]
Lindaraja (1901) [5:53]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Entre cloches (from Les sites auriculaires) (1895/1897) [2:44]
Rapsodie espagnole (1895/1908) [14:50]
La Valse (1920) [11:08]
Vladimir and Vovka Ashkenazy (pianos)
rec. 1-4 May 2008, Potton Hall, Suffolk. DDD
DECCA 478 1090 [66:01]
Experience Classicsonline

There is only one word necessary to review this disk: magnificent.

This is fantastic stuff; Ashkenazy père et fils let loose on French piano music. Marvellous. En blanc et noir is fiendishly difficult both to play and to “bring off” in performance. Here there is a real swagger to the first movement, the swirling lines simply flash past in a headlong rush, but every line is as clear as you could want. The slow movement evokes the war and contains bugle calls and a reference to the chorale Ein’ feste Burg; the Ashkenazys paint a bleak and devastated landscape which is just about perfect. The final scherzando has a restraint to it. Roger Nichols, in his excellent notes in the booklet, suggests that perhaps Debussy was aware of his own impending death. Whatever, this performance shows an understatement which is breathtaking.

Jeux was written for Diaghilev and was premiered two weeks before Le Sacre du Printemps. The furore caused by that latter event has, over the years, caused us to forget Debussy’s work. I have to confess that Jeux has never really spoken to me. True, it’s orchestrated superbly, has some real highpoints but, overall, I find the work unsatisfactory. Perhaps the elusiveness of the music goes against it ever becoming really popular with audiences. This version for two pianos is by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, no slouch himself at the keyboard - indeed, a friend of mine heard him recently playing the Ravel Left Hand Concerto in London and declared it to be the best performance of that work he’d ever heard (in over 45 years of concert going) - and it is very successful. It’s interesting that at no time did I actually miss orchestral colour, and this is a very sensuous score. I’m still not won over to the score but this performance, and arrangement, go a long way to explaining to me what it is all about. Rather cheekily, Bavouzet has retained the part for suspended cymbal at the beginning and end. It is just right within the context of the arrangement.

Lindaraja is probably Debussy’s response to the habanera in Ravel’s Les sites auriculaires for it employs the 3+2 2+3 rhythm of the Spanish dance. It’s a lighter piece and a nice foil for the complexities of Jeux.

Les sites auriculaires - Roger Nichols suggests Places to put your ears as a fair translation) consists of two pieces, an habanera (which became the third movement of Rapsodie espagnole - and Entre cloches. The bells peal quite aggressively, then reflectively, then joyously. It’s a delightful little piece; not typical Ravel, but an interesting insight into his mind before finally finding his style.

The Rapsodie espagnole is also very fine. A very atmospheric Prélude à la nuit, full of perfume and promise, is followed by a marvellously rhythmic Malagueña, light and fleeting. This is followed by the Habanera from Les sites auriculaires; once again we have sex and the night, with sultry and very colourful playing. The final Feria is a riot of pianism and festivities.

The disk doesn’t end in holidaymaking but in one of Ravel’s darkest works: La Valse. Written as a ballet for Diaghilev, but refused by him, it has gone on to become a staple of the concert repertoire. It’s a view of fin de siècle Vienna, at a grand court ball, and a depiction of the end of the world. This is a truly great performance! The Ashkenazys have the right attitude and they play with a passion and fire. The ending, where four beats tear across three really does make it seem as if it’s all over.

This is outstanding.

Bob Briggs  



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