Much of this music is associated with childhood. The Fauré was written for the daughter of his mistress, while the Stravinsky was for his own children to play. The Ravel not only treats of childhood tales but was premiered by children. The piano duet was a feature of the fin-de-siècle Parisian salon of course where the grown-ups gathered to converse and enjoy some entertaining music, but not usually to listen to long substantial Germanic music. The longest movement of the twenty-seven here is just over four minutes, and though some of the writing might challenge an amateur, it is hardly designed to display a transcendental technique. Yet if the genre of piano duet needs rescuing from the condescension of the salon, this excellent disc does just that.
Osborne and Lewis play Dolly’s opening Berceuse quite swiftly. I hope neither pianist would rock a cradle at this tempo, which at 2:16 could feel a bit impatient perhaps if compared to the 2:39 domesticity of Laurence Fromentin and Dominque Plancade on their similar Warner disc. But nonetheless it makes a beguiling entry to the work, and to the disc. The similarly flowing tempi are ideal for Mi-a-ou and Le jardin de Dolly, even if it cannot quite turn the latter into 'one of the loveliest tunes in the whole of the nineteenth century' as Roger Nichols’ enthusiastic booklet note calls it. Kitty-Valse waltzes with vivacity and Tendresse speaks of the composer’s love of women rather than of children. Le Pas Espagnol so dazzles us with Iberian colour that we do not really miss the familiar orchestral version.
Poulenc’s 1918 Sonata, all six minutes of it, opens with the dense discords of interwar music rather than the fin-de-siècle charm of Fauré, and Lewis and Osborne give it plenty of acerbic weight yet without overweighting its significance. They invest its central Rustique with the requisite bucolic charm, and in the helter-skelter finale (marked, and played, trés vite) they have much mischievous fun. Debussy’s Six épigraphes antiques, written just before the war in 1914 but borrowing from his Chansons de Bilitis of the later 1890s, are very sparse in texture, so much that Debussy’s subsequent two-hand transcription is often able to keep all the notes of this four-hand version. This transparency, and the antique-sounding modality of the music, are matched by the duettist’s sensitivity to its impressionism—the composer rejected the term but there are reasons it has stuck. A piece such as the second, Pour un tombeau sans nom (‘For the unmarked grave’) is such an elusive inspiration, that the playing has to suggest, as it does here, some poignant tale behind the notes. Debussy’s Petite suite of 1888 is the earliest music here, written well before the composer revolutionised piano music. Its attractions are delightfully evoked by this duo, who relish its tuneful charm.
Stravinsky’s witty—even ‘nudge, nudge’ witty—Three Easy Pieces are indulged amusingly, and make a nicely tart amuse-bouche to the great main course of any recital disc of this repertoire, Ravel’s irresistible Ma mère l'oye. From Sleeping Beauty’s delicate yet stately pavane, via Tom Thumb’s adventure and Laideronette’s pentatonic pagodas, to the waltzing dialogue of Beauty and the Beast, the playing realises each character and situation with a painterly skill. These fairy tales need no children’s book illustrations beyond those drawn here by these musicians. The Fairy Garden, that magical long-breathed inspiration that takes us all back to the enchantments of our own childhood, is as daringly slow as the first track on the disc was fast, but also persuades us of its rightness, as we ascend its glissandi-strewn steps to some infant Valhalla.
The sound is well up to Hyperion’s best for the instrument, and there is no better guide to the music’s background and qualities than Roger Nichols in his booklet note. No matter how many such notes (and books) he writes on the French music of this era, he always finds new insights to offer. Until now my preferred CD of this repertoire was the EMI 'Debut' disc (now on Warner) mentioned above, from the French duo of Laurence Fromentin and Dominque Plancade. That is still downloadable and brings its own delights, has almost the same programme, but replaces the Stravinsky and Debussy’s Six épigraphes antiques with Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants. That collection is called French Piano Duets, and does not cheat by adding the Three Easy Pieces written by a Russian resident of Switzerland twenty years before he became a French citizen. But putting pedantry aside, this collection will now become the disc I reach for when I want to hear any of these pieces. And we must hope this duo will follow it up by a sister collection of music for two pianos, repertoire containing superb works by several of these composers.
Hyperion has even done some thoughtful picture research and adorned the CD booklet with Gustave Caillebotte’s 'Oarsmen Rowing on the Yerres' (1877). The two rowers depicted there would do well to be as synchronised as Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne are, on a disc that is so enjoyable partly because they sound as if they are really enjoying themselves.