French Duets = FAURÉ: Dolly Suite, Op. 56; POULENC: Sonata for four hands; DEBUSSY: Six épigraphes antiques; Petite Suite; STRAVINSKY: Three Easy Pieces; RAVEL: Ma mère l’Oye – Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne, pianos – Hyperion CDA68329 68:28 (3/5/21) [Distr. PIAS] *****:
A meeting of true hearts and minds occurs here, in these exquisitely honed French pieces for piano, four hands, recorded 23-23 March 2020 by duo-pianists Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis with exemplary production from Stephen Johns. The opening 1894-95 Dolly Suite by Gabriel Fauré, conceived for the daughter of his mistress Emma Bardac, sets the tone of seamless symmetry of both parts, the Berceuse a moment of liquid enchantment. The most harmonically audacious movement, Tendresse, comes to us in a seductive D-flat Major. But precocity aside, the music returns to the charm of innocent youth in the last number, Le pas espagnole, a uniquely Iberian moment in Fauré inspired by an equestrian statue of which daughter Dolly had an ardent fondness.
The terse Poulenc 1918 Sonata sets a thoroughly different tone, with opening percussion, a testament to the composer’s taste for Bartok Allegro barbaro. The central movement, Rustique, is set in C Major on white keys only and bears a demure sense of lyrical simplicity. The Final last movement contains elements of innocence but marred by metric and vaudeville antics that will dominate the Poulenc ethos forever. The prima part evinces manic drive that wants the piece to serve as a nervous toccata.
Osborne and Lewis next address the deceptively terse and exotic Six épigraphes antiques originally conceived in 1901 as incidental music for two flutes, two harps, and celesta. They meant to accompany the stage performance, twelve tableaux-vivants of Les chansons de Bilitis, the 1894 edition of “Greek” poetry by Debussy’s friend Pierre Louys. In 1914, already ill, Debussy chose six movements of his prior incidental music and set them for piano, for two and four hands. Debussy employs his signature means: whole-tone and chromatic scales, mirror-techniques, and octave displacements that supposedly capture the symmetries of Ancient Greece. To wit, savor the colors of the fifth entry, Pour l‘egyptienne. Besides the plastic impressionism of the progressions, the use of selective pedal in the secondo part proves daunting. The 1889 Petite Suite enjoys a pearly glamor all its own, especially as the rolled chords of the opening En bateau elicit thoughts of liquid Fauré or the song by Verlaine set in 1869. Glistening sounds delight us in the jaunty Cortège. The lilting Menuet has whole tones to enhance its “antiquity.” The concluding Ballet delivers the kind of Parisian elan that Poulenc loves to showcase.
Stravinsky had his children Theodore and Ludmila in mind with his 1914 Three Easy Pieces, whose primo part bears the burden of virtuosity. While the music of the café and the music hall informs the rhythms, the opening March (dedicated to composer Alfredo Casella) derives from a popular Irish folk song, “The Blacksmith and his Son.” Redolent of Schubert, the music rather mocks any Romantic conceits. The Waltz second section is dedicated to Erik Satie, and its halting motion imitates Satie’s pensive, simple style. The Polka, dedicated to Diaghilev, captures Stravinsky’s irreverent notion of the ballet impraesario as a circus autocrat.
Maurice Ravel, having no children of his own, found delight in the two scions of Polish émigrés Mimi and Jean Godebski, and for them he conceived his Cinq pieces enfantines (after Perrault) in 1908. The opening Pavane of the sleeping beauty contains but twenty measures, but its spirit of innocence remains miraculous. Tom Thumb recounts his sojourn (in legato thirds) through the forest with a trail of breadcrumbs to guide him, which, unfortunately, birds devour. Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes utilizes pentatonic scales to depict not Chinese pagodas but insects that make music with nutshells. The impression of the Balinese gamelan has its moments in this exotic, glisteningly-performed masterpiece. The Conversation between Beauty and the Beast has the earmarks of a Satie gymnopédie, pulsated and haunted. Finally, Le jardin féerique: Lent et grave embraces most nostalgically the effervescence of youth, the combination of style and expression masterfully balanced. I add, parenthetically, that Koussevitzky’s performance of the orchestral version of this music, his classic with the Boston Symphony, never fails to elicit tears from my eyes. And this recording, too, has that same tender power.