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When global concert and recording artists Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne teamed up a couple of years ago to record an album of piano duo music by Schubert, it seemed they might become the new dream team in this repertoire. Now they are back with a second helping.
French Duets delivers exactly what it says on the tin, with music by Fauré, Poulenc, Debussy, Stravinsky and Ravel: some of the brightest gems in the piano duo treasury. And to my taste at least, this recording surpasses the last, becoming an immediate favourite.
No surprise, then, that French Duets is my May 2021 Recording of the Month…
A Playful Programme
With this disc, Lewis and Osborne deliver the following programme:
- Fauré: Dolly Op.56
- Poulenc: Sonata for four hands FP8
- Debussy: Six épgraphes antiques L139
- Debussy: Petite suite L71
- Stravinsky: Three easy pieces
- Ravel: Ma mère l’oye
Each of these works comprises a collection of short movements, and of the 27 tracks on the album just one breaks the four-minute barrier. We might therefore regard the overall confection as an assortment of delicious bonbons, none of the pieces outstaying its welcome, and all leaving us hungry for more.
Like many my age, the opening Berceuse from Fauré’s Dolly suite, composed in the 1860’s, was the first piece of classical music I encountered, as the theme tune to BBC Radio’s Listen with Mother story programme for toddlers. I have certainly witnessed (indeed, taken part in) more indulgent performances than Lewis and Osborne’s; here the movement is delivered with an insouciant elegance that allows it to speak simply for itself.
If the rest of Dolly (written some 3 decades after the Berceuse) is less well-known, it certainly deserves wider currency, and the present duo perform the six short movements with unified panache and apparent delight.
The opening fury of Poulenc’s Sonata for four hands might suggest that rockier times lie ahead; soon however, Poulenc’s trademark good humour reveals itself, bombastic dissonance giving way to angular but memorable melody. Lewis and Osborne are alert to every shimmering texture, every detail of articulation here, maximising the Sonata’s vivacious impact while rejoicing in the more lyrical contrasts that play an important part in the work’s masterly narrative.
Hardly among his better-known works, Debussy’s Six èpigraphes antiques originated as incidental music knocked out in 1898. Thereafter tucked away for a rainy day, their moment came in 1914, when they fetched the composer a much needed injection of 3,000 francs. The pieces conjure the pastoral vision of Ancient Greece popular in the arts world at the time, the music itself rooted in modal scales. These are highly evocative pieces, and having not previously paid them much attention it is a joy to discover them freshly delivered here.
If Fauré’s Dolly belongs to childrens’ storytime, Debussy’s Petite suite is surely music for playtime!
Published in early 1889, the Petite suite is deservedly Debussy’s better known piano duet work, its four short movements composed appealingly for the salon, and weaving together some of his most instant melodic writing with sumptuous late Romantic harmony. Each piece is an absolute gem, and fans of the Arabesques, Children’s Corner and the Suite Bergamasque should rush to discover their duo counterpart here!
Stravinsky’s Three easy pieces of 1914 were probably composed to amuse his young children, and anticipate the children’s music of Prokofiev with their grotesque melodic distortions, brevity and humorous effect. But to describe them as playful perhaps barely covers their novelty and value.
The spirit of youth and play, ever-present in this collection, finally distills in that greatest of French Duet works, Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye, the Mother Goose suite. Offering some of his most succinct yet intoxicating music, Ravel’s five short movements last barely more than 15 minutes in total, each morsel supremely successful in painting its fairy-tale picture.
As solo artists, Lewis and Osborne have carved out somewhat contrasting careers, and would seem to have different tastes and approaches to the repertoire they play. As a duo, any such differences disappear. We are told that they share out the primo and secondo parts equally, but there is really no telling, such is the unanimity and cohesion with which they play as a single voice.
While I must confess that I ultimately found their Schubert disc a little too earnest, here Lewis and Osborne perfectly capture and bottle the effervescence of these delicious French concoctions. Perfection indeed!
The recording was made at Saffron Hall in Saffron Walden on 22/3 March 2020, a weekend finally overshadowed by our Prime Minister’s announcement of the first National Lockdown here in the UK. Thinking back, how remarkable that in these performances there are no hints of the dark clouds gathering.
The French Duets album was recorded by Oscar Torres and produced by Stephen Johns for Hyperion Records under the watchful gaze of executive producer Simon Perry. The CD includes an informative if slightly dry booklet note by Roger Nichols in English, French and German.
When two stars come into alignment for four-hand piano repertoire, there’s a danger that each will compete for the limelight, one or both personalities writ too large in the overall performance. Here, happily, this is not the case. Lewis and Osborne are indistinguishable; their duo, and the music before them, is all.
After a year in which piano duets have been globally simmering on the back-burner, if indeed at all, it is a sheer delight to be reminded of these peak works from the repertoire. Lewis and Osborne’s recording is thus as timely as it is superbly executed.
Over the decades there have of course been many astonishingly good piano duo recordings; this is absolutely now one of them.
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