Several of the miniatures in this charming collection were composed for—and in some cases designed to be played—by children. Fauré’s affair with the singer Emma Bardac (who was later to become Debussy’s second wife) led to his composition Dolly, the name of Bardac’s second child Régina-Hèléne, who was given that nickname because of her diminutive size. Ravel was devoted to the children of his Polish friends the Godebskis, one of whom later recalled sitting on his knee while he told the story of Beauty and the Beast; this led to the piano duet version of Ma Mère l’Oye which he hoped those children might premiere. Meanwhile Stravinsky, exhausted by his labours on Les Noces, took time out to compose Three Easy Pieces for his elder children to play.
Stravinsky’s little efforts, with a simple secondo part under a more elaborate primo, are usually dismissed as unimportant trifles, but Roger Nicholls’ illuminating liner note suggests that we look closer, appreciateing the musical allusions and skill with which he manages his harmonic progressions. Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye requires more subtlety of touch than young children could provide, but emerges here in marvellously silky form, as does Fauré’s Dolly.
Poulenc wrote his Sonata for Four Hands when just 19 and heavily influenced by Prokofiev’s Sarcasms and Bartók’s Allegro barbaro, whose opening burst he happily pastiches. Yet at the same time this music already bears Poulenc’s stamp, with its unique blend of flippancy and elegance. The crowning glory of this album is Debussy’s Six épigraphes antiques, with which Lewis and Osborne make magic. They create a mysterious and calmly numinous atmosphere for the first two pieces, and convey the tonal ambiguities with what feel like casual flicks of the wrist. The fact that it’s four wrists in perfect accord is typical of this brilliant pianistic team: listening blind, one could imagine it’s a single pair of omnipotent hands.