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French Duets
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Dolly, Op 56 [13:25]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sonata for four hands, FP8 [5:55]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Six épigraphes antiques L139 [16:03]
Petite suite L71 [13:09]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Three easy pieces [4:09]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Ma mère l’oye [15:44]
Paul Lewis, Steven Osborne (piano)
rec. March 2020, Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, UK
HYPERION CDA68329 [68:28]

This is not the first collaboration on disc between Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne. Ten years ago, they recorded for Hyperion an album of Schubert piano duets which was acclaimed by Dominy Clements (review). Dominy ended his appraisal by saying “Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis prove themselves a perfect partnering for this and, I hope, many more projects of the kind.” I’m not aware that these two distinguished pianists have collaborated together in the recording studio since then. Quite possibly, one reason why a decade has elapsed since their last joint venture is the sheer difficulty of getting together two very busy international artists for the same project. When I saw the disc advertised, I wondered if it had been recorded while both men were prevented from making concert appearances around the world but that’s not the case: in fact, the sessions took place on 22 and 23 March 2020, literally on the eve of the UK’s Covid lockdown. Had the sessions been scheduled a day or two later who knows whether the recording might even have taken place at a later date. Thank goodness Hyperion beat the lockdown on this occasion.

Fauré’s Dolly suite opens the programme. Lewis and Osborne find an ideal tempo for the well-known ‘Berceuse’ which allows the music the fluidity it needs. ‘Mi-a-ou’ is energetic and gay while the pianists impart a delightful flow to ‘Le jardin de Dolly’. ‘Kitty-valse’ sparkles and these two artists bring a wonderful combined pianistic touch to ‘Tendresse’. The concluding ‘Le pas espagnol’ is brightly coloured and played with great zest.

Poulenc was a mere 19 years old when he finished his concise Sonata for four hands. You won’t find in this work any of those delightful characteristic melodies with trademark bittersweet harmonies but there’s lots else to divert the listener. The outer sections of the ‘Prélude’ are highly percussive; Lewis and Osborne drive the music forward excitingly, bringing plenty of power to their pianism. The central movement, ‘Rustique’ is innocent of any accidentals. This slightly naïve piece is an admirable foil to the demonic energy of the ‘Prélude’. Poulenc reverts to energy – of the helter-skelter kind – for his ‘Final’. This is fast and furious stuff but at the very end the suppressed yet energetic payoff is a typical tongue-in-cheek surprise from Poulenc. I enjoyed this performance very much indeed.

Debussy’s music is at the heart of this programme. Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne treat us to a super performance of Six épigraphes antiques. I especially admired the second piece ‘Pour un tombeau sans nom’. Here, Lewis and Osborne offer really subtle playing, conjuring a genuine air of mystery. ‘Pour que la nuit soit propice’ is no less refined: here, there’s a remarkable range of pianistic colour to admire. In ‘Pour l’égyptienne’ the superb touch of both players enables them to convey wonderfully the sultry exoticism in Debussy’s music.

Their account of Petite suite is equally persuasive. In the opening ‘En bateau’ it seems that the boat in question is gliding serenely across the water. ‘Cortège’ portrays ‘a monkey in a brocaded jacket trotting and leaping in front of his mistress…’ The animated, imaginative playing here depicts vividly a cheeky monkey cavorting in the street. The last of the four movements is ‘Ballet’. In his expert notes, Roger Nichols identifies the influence of Chabrier in this movement. The beautifully pointed, witty performance on this disc certainly evokes echoes of Chabrier as far as I’m concerned.

I guess that for the purposes of this programme Stravinsky has been treated as an honorary Frenchman. Presumably he qualified on the basis that when he composed Three easy pieces in 1914, he was immersed in his association with Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. These are clever little miniatures. The final one, ‘Polka’ was apparently inspired by a mental image of the great ballet impresario as a ring-master, cracking his whip. Fortunately, it seems that Diaghilev appreciated the joke.

Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne end their programme with a work that is a classic of the genre; the original piano version of Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye. Ravel’s orchestral score is miraculous but it’s fascinating to hear the original version too, especially in the hands of master pianists. Lewis and Osborne bring a poised simplicity to ‘Pavane de la belle au bois dormant’. In ‘Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes’ they capture to perfection the glittering brilliance of Ravel’s gamelan-like invention. In ‘Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête’ Ravel cleverly allotted the music of one character to each of the pianists; here, Lewis and Osborne bring an admirable range of colours to the musical depiction. Finally comes ‘Le jardin féerique’. What exquisite music this is, whether you hear it played by an orchestra or in the keyboard version. Here, Lewis and Osborne convey the grave beauty of the opening and thereafter every chord, ever note is expertly weighted until the majestic ending. It’s a magical performance and one scarcely misses the orchestra palette.

This is an outstanding recital of richly entertaining music. We’re not told which pianist plays primo or secondo – maybe they change places from time to time. It matters not. Here we have two superb pianists working in perfect equipoise and harmony and the results are superb. The picture on the booklet cover is Boaters rowing on the Yerres (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). The choice is entirely apt because it’s a French picture depicting two men working together as one. However, with my tongue slightly in my cheek, might I suggest that in one respect the picture doesn’t fit the bill? Caillebotte shows his oarsmen putting their backs into the task in hand: in this recital, however, there’s no sense of hard work; the two artists sound relaxed, at ease, and thoroughly enjoying not only the music but also the experience of making music together again. Two very fine musicians are having fun and those of us who hear the disc reap the benefits. I hope that, other commitments permitting, Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne may be able to renew their fruitful collaboration again before too long.

Engineer Oscar Torres has captured the sound of the Steinway in Saffron Hall beautifully. The many delicate passages are expertly balanced but where power is the order of the day – as in the outer movements of the Poulenc sonata, for example - the recording copes effortlessly. The notes by Roger Nichols are as knowledgeable and readable as you’d expect.

John Quinn



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