French duets

I sometimes think that it’s a blessing that foreign artists are there to champion French music, because in France I occasionally have the impression that French music is not well loved, or more precisely that the repertoire played is rather limited and too often confined to the big hits. On the other hand, across the Channel, British musicians have a deep love of French music and many of them shine in this repertoire, as evidenced by the latest disc released by pianists Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne, French Duets, on the British label Hyperion.

Lewis and Osborne have devised an enchanting programme around the theme of childhood. Gabriel Fauré’s piano suite Dolly (1894-1897) was composed for the daughter of the singer Emma Bardac, Hélène, nicknamed Dolly because of her small size. Fauré sent these short pieces either on the occasion of the little girl’s birthdays or family events. They have familiar titles that evoke the little girl’s world (her dog, her brother Raoul, her garden).

Francis Poulenc was barely 19 when he wrote the Sonata for four hands (1918), which he dedicated to the pianist Simone Tilliard. It is an early work, which shows the influence of Satie, Bartok and Prokofiev on the young Poulenc, whose own personality can already be perceived: « The final ‘sign-off’—a feature that was to recur throughout Poulenc’s œuvre—asks the question: has it overall been serious, comic, anxious, joyful, sarcastic, tender? Or a mixture of some or all of these? The simultaneous markings ‘presto’ and ‘subito ppp’ add to the emotional ambiguity. » (Roger Nichols, booklet of the album)

The 6 Epigraphes antiques (1914-15) are a suite for piano that Debussy composed from incidental music he had written for a single performance, recited and mimed, of the twelve Chansons de Bilitis by his friend, the poet Pierre Louÿs. These six miniatures were an opportunity for Debussy to explore ‘a musical language based on ancient modes, which had been rediscovered since the mid-nineteenth century’ (Antoine Mignon). These pieces conjure up a fantasized vision of ancient Greece by means of orientalist modal melodies and harmonies.

Influenced by Delibes, Fauré and Chabrier, Debussy’s Petite Suite (c. 1888) is a salon work as reviewer Roger Nichols explains: «  »It is ideal material for playing in a salon setting – nothing too heavy or long, easy to grasp rhythms and memorable tunes. »

French by adoption in the 1910s, Igor Stravinsky had just emerged from the scandal of The Rite of Spring (1913) when he composed the Three Easy Pieces (1914) for his two eldest children, Theodore and Ludmilla. These miniatures are full of mischief, and hide a great complexity of writing under an air of simplicity: « n a stereotype something which strongly suggests but does not in fact belong to that stereotype’—in this case, the world of the music hall and café concert that was to inspire composers such as Poulenc and Auric in the early 1920s. The seconda player is given tiny ‘um-cha’ figures that are each repeated throughout the piece (‘um-cha-cha’ in the ‘Waltz’), and it’s easy to underestimate Stravinsky’s skill in managing these, so effortlessly exact is their harmonic progress. » (Roger Nichols)

As Roger Nichols reminds us in the booklet, Ravel never married. However throughout his life he was fascinated by and nostalgic of the world of childhood. He composed Ma Mère l’Oye for Mimie and Jean Godebski, the two children of his friends Cipa and Ida Godebski. These five pieces were inspired by Perrault’s Contes de ma mère l’Oye, Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s La Belle et la Bête and Madame d’Aulnoy’s Le Serpentin Vert: « Style (manière) simplified; means of expression (écriture) refined. The precise matching of the limitations of manière with those of écriture is undoubtedly one of the things that makes this suite a masterpiece. » (Roger Nichols)

Contrary to the impression of effort given by the painting by Caillebotte, Boaters rowing on the Yerres, used to illustrate the cover of the album, what is striking when listening to this disc is the naturalness and the relaxation that characterize the performance by Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne, as well as the harmony between the two musicians. Everything contributes to making this record an enchanted interlude: the beauty and delicacy of the music performed, as well as the sensitive, tender, nuanced and colourful playing of the two British pianists.

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