Maurice RAVEL
Music for Two Pianos
Rapsodie Espagnole (1907-1908)
I. Prélude à la nuit [4:08]
II. Malagueña [2:05]
III. Habanera [2:51]
IV. Feria [6:11]
Introduction et Allegro (1905) [10:37]
Entres cloches (from Sites auriculaires) (1895-1897) [3:09]
Shéhérazade - Ouverture de féerie (1898) [13:24]
Frontispiece (1918)* [1:56]
La Valse (Poème chorégraphique pour orchestre) (1919-1920) [11:41]
Stephen Coombs and Christopher Scott (pianos)
*Yuki Matsuzawa (fifth hand)
rec. 21-22 July 1990, Chapel of Cranleigh School, Surrey, UK. Previously released as Gamut GAMCD517
REGIS RRC1356 [56:07]

Ravel’s formidable skills as an orchestrator – the ubiquitous Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition comes to mind – are eclipsed only by his talent for transcribing orchestral pieces for two and four hands. Indeed, few composers are so successful at transferring their unique sound-worlds – with all their colours and nuances – to the keyboard. And while this reissued recording might be deemed short measure at just over 56 minutes, a preliminary audition suggests it offers excellent value in many other respects.

I have come across Stephen Coombs before – he has recorded a number of solo recitals for Hyperion – but as a duo he and Christopher Scott are unfamiliar to me. As for this repertoire, the Kontarskys on DG and Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier on Chandos are well worth hearing, as they offer very different perspectives on these colourful works. The first part of Rapsodie Espagnole, one of the composer’s many tributes to Spain, is a sultry piece of night music, its slow, steady heartbeat beautifully sustained. The nimble interplay of Malagueña is no less impressive; and although the music’s bright flourishes are a little fierce at times, those distinctive bass rhythms are very well caught. Indeed, Habañera is tastefully done, Ravel at his most suave and sohisticated; as for Feria, the volatile dynamics of the piece are superbly judged, the playing as crisp and thrustful as one could hope for.

So, a delectable entrée, but what of the main course and dessert? The Introduction et Allegro – originally written for harp, string quartet, flute and clarinet – has a delicacy, a genteel charm, that’s most artfully mimicked on the piano. One can only marvel at Ravel’s forensic attention to instrumental character – listen to those harp swirls, the flutter of flute, the phrases shaped with sensitivity and style. As for Entres cloches, from Sites auriculaires – originally composed for two pianos there’s no sign of the disaster that afflicted the premiere in 1898, when both pianists were less than perfectly synchronised. These bells ring out with confidence, the piece played with thrilling attack and energy.

No ringing endorsements for Ravel’s first orchestral work, though; Shéhérazade - Ouverture de féerie was savaged by an early critic, who dismissed it as ‘un gauche démarquage de l'école russe’. Which may explain why Ravel suppressed the piece, resurrecting part of the title in his later song-cycle. And despite the mention of fairies, Mendelssohn this isn’t; in fact, there’s a tough, declamatory – and sometimes motoric – element to this music, which is probably what alienated those who were expecting something more diaphanous. Coombs’ and Scott’s playing is clean-limbed, rhythms precise and dynamics well-controlled. The pounding bass dissonances are especially arresting. Yes, this may not be as harmonically inventive as some of the works here, but that matters little when the performance is as taut and compelling as this.

The intriguingly titled Frontispiece is just that, a brief – but intricate – preface to a collection of poems by the Paris-based Italian poet Ricciotto Canudo. A mere 15 bars long it calls for a fifth hand, provided here by Tokyo-born pianist Yuki Matsuzawa. From a delicate set of chimes it builds to a simple, understated climax. Nothing reticent about La Valse. Originally written for Diaghilev – and played to him in this two-piano reduction – it’s long been seen as a homage to the Viennese waltz; that said, some scholars have suggested it’s a rather darker reflection on the slaughter just ended. Coombs and Scott certainly give the dance just the right amount of lilt, those percussive intrusions as disfiguring as they should be. It’s an astonishing piece, a stroboscopic nightmare worthy of German Expressionist cinema.

This is a most attractive collection that sits somewhere between the Horowitz-like flamboyance of the Kontarskys and the cool elegance of Lortie and Mercier. If only the disc were better filled – Ma Mère l'Oye or Boléro would have fitted easily enough – it would be even more desirable. One small caveat, though; the liner-notes are a little scrappy – low cost need not mean low rent – and details of the music are much more useful than potted biographies of composers and performers. Quibbles aside, this is a terrific disc – and a bargain to boot. Buy it.

Dan Morgan

A terrific disc – and a bargain to boot. Buy it.