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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Petite Suite (1888-1889) [13:24]
Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire (1890, 1st version) [7:11]
Six Épigraphes antiques (1914-1915) [15:08]
Première Suite d'orchestre (c.1882-1884) [26:16]
Jean-Pierre Armengaud and Olivier Chauzu (piano, four hands)
rec. March and July 2012, Studio 4'33 Pierre Malbos, Ivry-sur-Seine, France
NAXOS 8.572979 [62:16]

The last batch of Naxos/Debussy discs to cross my desk was the 9-CD Jun Märkl box (review); one of the highlights of that somewhat variable collection is Henri Büsser’s fine orchestration of the Petite Suite, the original version of which headlines this new disc. Pianists Jean-Pierre Armengaud and Olivier Chauzu, are new to me, but their potted bios suggest a decent track record as performers. However, this is only their first recording for Naxos.
Initial impressions? Not very favourable, I’m afraid. Sadly En bateau, which opens the Petite Suite, never leaves its moorings. The playing is curiously diffident and the piano sound is nowhere near as sophisticated or immersive as those of Hyperionet al. Indeed, the treble is hard and bright in Cortège, Menuet lacks charm and Ballet is precise but much too mechanical for my tastes. Also, phrasing and dynamic control leave much to be desired. Really, it’s hard to imagine this delightful repertoire played with less imagination than it is here. To make matters worse, there’s an audible glitch in the dying seconds of Ballet.
Recent Naxos releases suggested a welcome move away from the sub-par piano sound of the past, but it seems that was wishful thinking on my part. Back to the music; the Marche écossaise gets a fair outing, but again there’s a perplexing lack of engagement and energy here, as if the pianists were each doodling in separate rooms. That said, there are flashes of what might-have-been, which merely add to my frustration with this disc. The Épigraphes are slightly more alluring, but only slightly; regrettably, there’s still a dull, self-regarding quality to the playing that’s just fatal.
Is there any chink of light in this drab collection? Alas, no. The duo’s rendition of the Première Suite is frankly relentless, and any hopes of a resurrecting lift and sparkle are soon extinguished by this graceless playing and shallow sound. Goodness, I can’t recall a review disc so devoid of appeal. If you want to hear an almost identical programme played with a liberating sense of discovery and delight then try Joseph Tong and Waka Hasegawa on Quartz. I fully endorse Dominy Clements’ sentiments on that one (review).
Dreary; avoid.
Dan Morgan
See also review by Dave Billinge