DEBUSSY & RAVEL Music for Two Pianos = DEBUSSY: En blanc et noir; Jeux (poeme dansé); Lindaraja; RAVEL: Entre cloches; Rapsodie espagnole; La Valse – Vladimir & Vovka Ashkenazy, pianos – Decca 478 1090 DH, 66:04 [Distr. by Universal] *****:

A fine program of works by the two impressionist composers for two pianos, featuring conductor-pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy and his son. The big interest here for me is what may be the only recording of the two-piano version of Debussy’s odd ballet Jeux – his last big orchestral composition – done by Jean-Efflam Bavouszet, following the example of Debussy’s own solo piano score. The composer had promised his published to get around to a two-piano version but never had. The ballet was very complex, with changes of tempo about every couple bars. Nijinsky was the choreographer, and intended the scenario to concern a homosexual encounter between three men, also including a plane crash. The final version, however, involved a man, two girls and a tennis game – a slight change of story. The ballet was not well received, but the two-piano version is very likeable.

Ravel was ahead of Debussy in converting his music to two-piano versions.  He personally did both his Rapsodie espagnole and La Valse in that form. La Valse is an amazing deconstruction of the Viennese waltz, which has tremendous impact in the exciting orchestral original. However, the two-piano version accents some of the hardness and violence in the latter part of the work, and doesn’t lose that much of the symphonic impact.  The note booklet writer opines the work is the equal of anything by Mahler or Berg.

The notes also go into the entirely different functional use and sound world of works for piano duet vs. works for two pianos. The first are for intimate family gatherings and once were a popular way to get familiar with orchestral classics in piano duet arrangements.  The latter is a more serious thing, with each pianist having the freedom of the entire keyboard, with no dangers of running into one another, and the much greater spectrum of expression was more successful in imitating the essence of orchestral scores. The CD’s sonics are first rate; I just wish most two-piano recordings would space the two instruments a bit further apart for more spatial differenciation.  It seems the engineers generally just leave the two grand pianos’ lengths folded side by side, with little spatial separation. I would wish for something actually closer to the exaggerated stereo of the early 60s. It’s always struck me as odd that most single piano recordings exaggerate the size of the instrument horribly – making it 40-feet wide – yet two-piano recordings compress the two instruments into one.

– John Sunier