Debussy & Ravel: Music for Two Pianos

Vladimir Ashkenazy, Vovka Ashkenazy (Decca 4781090)

6 September 2009 3 stars

AshkenazyFor two composers, Debussy and Ravel, who were such masters of writing for both piano and orchestra, the two-piano medium might seem a propitious middle-ground, providing an expanded range of piano sonorities as well as a useful testing ground for later orchestral works. However, such were the slight impracticalities of the two-piano combination – neither domestic nor, perhaps, ideally suited to the concert hall – that only around half of this new collection from Vladimir Ashkenazy and his son, Vovka, is made up of original two-piano works. Granted, among them are Debussy's masterly En blanc et noir, alongside Lindaraja and Ravel's original version of the Rapsodie espagnole and the brief 'Entre cloches' from Site auriculaires. The rest has to be made up with Jeux in Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's arrangement and Ravel's own arrangement of La valse.

It's a varied programme, then, which includes some great music and the prospect of hearing the two ballet scores, in particular, with all the clarity of the two-piano medium is an interesting one. However, although the Ashkenazys turn in polished, accurate performances of all the works, the net effect is often rather un-engaging. The mere mention of Bavouzet's name, for example, makes one wish for the kind of fierce virtuosity and commitment that he brought to his Debussy cycle, not to mention his delight in pianistic colour. The effect is not helped by Decca's recorded sound, which is clean but rather anodyne, but the playing rarely sounds alert to this music's beauty and depth, or coloristic opportunities.

The opening of En blanc et noir has rhythmic precision and is forceful, for example, in the bare unison passages, but where it needs to dance, it sounds rather flat-footed. The central movement is sensitively played but captures little of the uncertainty and tension it demands. The 'Scherzando' has vitality but, like most of the performance, just sounds somewhat aloof. There's little in their interpretation of Jeux that makes one want to return to this ahead of its orchestral original. Nor does the two-piano original of Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnole offer much, on this showing, when compared with the (masterfully) orchestrated version. The greater textural clarity we gain in La valse does bring some details of Ravel's composition to the fore, but again, despite nothing being amiss technically, the Ashkenazys fail successfully to convey its diabolical trajectory towards Karl Kraus's 'gay apocalypse.' Between them, they achieve less than Boris Berezovsky does, for example, in his remarkable recording of the solo-piano version.

Throughout this disc there's a feeling of an idea for a programme not really having enough music to sustain it, nor are the limited gains to be had in the two-piano versions of works originally conceived, or better known, in their orchestral guise, effectively realised by the Ashkenazys' performances. They might have been helped a little by engineering from Decca that wasn't a little lifeless but with so much great Debussy playing, in particular, around at the moment – not only Bavouzet's recently completed cycle, but Pascal Rogé's – it's difficult not to miss that instinctive feel for the music in the Ashkenazys' playing.

By Hugo Shirley