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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Alborada del gracioso [7:37]
Valses nobles et sentimentales [16:47]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Children’s Corner [16:46]
Clair de lune [5:00]
La plus que lente [5:03]
Deux arabesques [9:15]
ChromaDuo (Tracy Anne Smith & Rob MacDonald (guitars))
(Alborada arr. Stephen Goss, all others arr. ChromaDuo)
rec. 13-16 August 2015, St John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, Ontario, Canada
Booklet notes in English
NAXOS 8.573286 [60:47]

Ravel and Debussy on guitar seems to me the most natural of transcriptions – the colour palette, the occasional Spanish flavours, and the reflective atmosphere imbued by much of their work. Some would say the guitar is no substitute for the piano originals of these pieces in tonal or dynamic range, not to mention the sustain pedal’s role. But there’s also that ‘music between the notes’ quality so befitting the guitar’s personality. Yes, it does to an extent change the complexion of the music, but for neither better nor worse - just different. And with two instruments, the tonal, harmonic and dynamic possibilities multiply.

This programme is in the hands of Canadian guitarists Tracy Anne Smith and Rob MacDonald, performing as ChromaDuo, whose previous venture with Naxos, their recording debut, was reviewed here in 2012. On that outing, they played contemporary compositions for guitar duo, some of which they commissioned. In common between that album and the current one is Welsh composer Stephen Goss, who contributed two works to the former and made the arrangement of Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso which opens this CD. All other arrangements are by the performers. Norbert Kraft, the ‘guiding light’ of the Naxos guitar catalogue, also shouldn’t be overlooked, as he produced and engineered both albums.

If you already know the works played here by Chromaduo, you would suspect that the opening Ravel piece presents the greatest challenges, technically and in realisation. The Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of the Jester) incorporates Spanish themes into its complicated melodies, with outbursts of festive colour and lively abandon. It’s the latter, regrettably, that I miss most in ChromaDuo’s reading – rather I sense ‘control’. If anything, this piece needs an infusion of the flamenco spirit, but there was none of that. My other impression is of ChromaDuo’s technique being fully tested, for while the musical shape and pulse are always there, the fast passagework at times seems a little approximate. I found myself on the edge of the seat, but for the wrong reason.

The feeling of control persists, I’m afraid, throughout the remainder of programme, and while I felt technically safer in ChromaDuo’s hands than at the beginning, it was all perhaps too safe. The reflective is more the regulated. I knew this programme would work if played well, and that it mostly is, but the pervading mood - low-key, cautious, too reverential even - tested my patience. Gently charming, maybe, but if you otherwise have this music under your skin, you may like me think that the composers are being undersold, or possibly misunderstood. Indeed, hearing the Bream/Williams duo’s ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ (from Children’s Corner) and Clair de lune exposes the spark and flair all but absent from ChromaDuo’s. Unfair comparison? Not really – they’re competing in the same space, and at about the same price point. It does make me wonder sometimes what market research, and listening, fledgling recording artists do before launching into the musical mainstream. In ChromaDuo’s favour, they do cover some repertoire which, as far as I can tell, is new to two-guitar arrangement, and that’s to be warmly welcomed. And their arrangements, per se, I have no problem with. The Naxos recording is very natural, as is the norm for its guitar productions.

I have no doubt many will find ChromaDuo’s traversal of these Ravel and Debussy works more than acceptable, delightful even, but more for relaxation than concentrated listening – yes, that’s right, dinner-party music. Was that the intention? For me, ChromaDuo do confirm these pieces work well for two guitars, but also left me with the feeling they could, and should, be done better - much better.

Des Hutchinson

 

 




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