Steven Osborne – French Duets – Fauré: Dolly Suite; Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc etc. (2021)
FLAC (tracks) 24 bit/192 kHz | Time – 01:08:28 minutes | 2,50 GB | Genre: Classical
Studio Masters, Official Digital Download | Digital Booklet, Front Cover | © Hyperion
Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye and Fauré’s Dolly are two of the highlights in this bewitching programme of music often associated with childhood—works which amply reward the care lavished on them by Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne in these exquisite accounts.Spotting influences is a favourite game of music historians, and one of the first rules to be learnt is that influences often go underground, to emerge in almost unrecognizable transformations years later. So, whereas we might expect Debussy’s first visit to Bayreuth in the summer of 1888 to have turned him entirely towards Wagner, for the moment he kept a corner of himself that was forever French.
The Petite suite dates probably from the end of 1888. It was printed in February 1889, and Debussy and his future publisher, Jacques Durand, gave the first performance at a private salon on 1 March. It’s ideal salon material—nothing too heavy or too long, easily grasped rhythms and memorable tunes. If one has to find influences, then it is to Delibes we should look, together with Fauré and, in the boisterous last movement, Chabrier: at the first performance, Debussy got over-excited here and left poor Durand struggling … Elsewhere, there is a decorous, olde-worlde air about much of the music, with its clear-cut phrases and modal inflections, as in the opening harmonies of ‘En bateau’.
The titles of this movement and the next (‘Cortège’) are to be found in Verlaine’s volume of poems Fêtes galantes, one of Debussy’s favourite quarries for song texts. It’s conceivable therefore that ‘En bateau’ depicts the skiff in the moonlight ‘gliding merrily over the dreaming water’, and ‘Cortège’ ‘a monkey in a brocaded jacket trotting and leaping in front of his mistress, as she waves a handkerchief in her delicately gloved hand’. Our only certain identification is of the third movement, ‘Menuet’, which is a transcription of Debussy’s 1882 song Fête galante to words by Théodore Faullin de Banville, described by the composer as ‘Louis XIV music with 1882 ideas’. The opening line, ‘Voilà Silvandre et Lycas et Myrtil’, introduces characters from the commedia dell’arte.
Whereas original works and arrangements for two pianos were, for obvious reasons, intended mainly for the concert hall, the needs of the French salon produced a no less distinguished repertory for piano duet. And inside this repertory, music that conjures up childhood memories forms a much-treasured subset. Not that the best of this music was meant for the average child to perform—like Ma mère l’oye, Fauré’s Dolly has its tricky moments.
In the summer of 1892, Fauré began an affair with Emma Bardac, a singer married to a rich banker, who was later to become Debussy’s second wife. Mme Bardac had just given birth to her second child, Régina-Hélène, known as Dolly because she was so tiny, and five of the six pieces in this suite were written for her over a period of four years (the exception being ‘Berceuse’, which Fauré had kept in a drawer since the 1860s).
The title of the second movement, written for Dolly’s second birthday (20 June 1894), was a mistake by Fauré’s publisher Hamelle for ‘Messieu Aoul’, Dolly’s name for her elder brother Raoul, then a lively thirteen-year-old. ‘Le jardin de Dolly’, a New Year present for 1895, must be one of the loveliest tunes in the whole of the nineteenth century, while ‘Kitty-valse’, composed for Dolly’s fourth birthday, was in fact a portrait of the family dog, Ketty. After the almost adult passion unleashed in the wonderful ‘Tendresse’, in the arch Romantic key of D flat major, Fauré returns to childish sparkle in ‘Le pas espagnol’, the only example of Spanish music in his whole output. According to the pianist Marguerite Long, it was inspired by a statue of a man on a horse of which Dolly was fond.
Although Ravel never married, and indeed thought composers unsuited to that state, he had the highest regard for its propensity to produce his favourite people: children. Among his married friends, the Polish émigrés Cipa and Ida Godebski held first place in his affections—Cipa’s half-sister Misia became Diaghilev’s invaluable adviser and go-between in his many delicate dealings with the Parisian beau monde. The Godebskis had two children, Mimie and Jean, and Mimie later recalled: ‘I would climb up on his knee and patiently he would begin with “Once upon a time …”. And it would be Laideronnette or Beauty and the beast or, very often, adventures he made up for me about a poor little mouse.’
It was for these two children that Ravel wrote the original piano-duet version of Ma mère l’oye, hoping they would give the first performance. But in the end, two other children gave the suite its first performance in April 1910. In the ‘Pavane of the sleeping beauty’, Ravel wanted a very slow tempo and simple playing without looking to make every note expressive. The story of ‘Petit poucet’ (Tom Thumb) tells how he left a trail of breadcrumbs to guide him on his way back through the forest, but the birds ate them up. The smooth thirds, on strings—which have to be very uniform in sonority—in Ravel’s own orchestration, depict his journey, and the variable time signatures his hesitations.
In ‘Laideronnette, empress of the pagodas’, Ravel turned understandably to the pentatonic scale, although the pagodas in question are not in fact Chinese temples but small, insect-like creatures who make music with nutshells. There are clear similarities between some of the textures and Debussy’s ‘Pagodes’ (from Estampes), and also with the oriental gamelan music Ravel heard at the Paris Exhibition of 1889.
The contrast in ‘Beauty and the beast’ between the two main characters is achieved simply in this piano-duet version by allotting each of them to one of the two performers. Here Ravel seems to pay homage to Satie’s Gymnopédies. Finally, in ‘The magic garden’, we find one of the most potent evocations of the nostalgia Ravel felt for his own childhood. 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.
After setting three of his friend Pierre Louÿs’s 1894 prose poems Les chansons de Bilitis in 1898, Debussy was asked by him to provide incidental music for a mimed recitation of another twelve poems, the composer choosing a delicate ensemble of two flutes, two harps and celesta. A single performance was given on 7 February 1901, after rehearsals of which Louÿs wrote: ‘I’m spending every afternoon with naked women. It’s nice.’ The poems were spoofs on those by Sappho, supposedly a friend of the non-existent Bilitis, and a review praised the music as ‘ingeniously archaic’. The score then remained tucked away among the composer’s papers until 1914 when, even more financially embarrassed than usual, he thought of turning six of the episodes into pieces for piano duet—the Six épigraphes antiques. He asked for and received the sum of 3,000 francs, but a mooted orchestration never materialized.
As French composers of the time often did, Debussy conjured up a pastoral vision of Ancient Greece through modal melodies and harmonies: the first piece, with a key signature of one flat, is in a Dorian mode based on G, with no accidentals in its thirty-six bars. In contrast, ‘Pour un tombeau sans nom’ is severely coloured by the whole-tone scale and ends with a ‘distant plaint’ whose chromaticisms belong more to the Middle East (which makes sense, as Bilitis was supposed to come from the Greek islands rather than the mainland). Monotony rules in the third piece, and dancing in the fourth, while ‘Pour l’égyptienne’ shows Debussy turning modern harmonies into the most natural things in the world. Finally, monotony returns with the rain, until the final hesitant, enigmatic reference back to the suite’s opening bars. Was this a reference to real life? The publisher’s assistant was to collect the score on 31 July 1914. The next day, France mobilized for war.
In that year of 1914, Stravinsky, having just about recovered from the production of Le sacre du printemps and its fallout, and with Les Noces now beginning on its long and laboured genesis, very reasonably took time out to compose a few works on a smaller, less intense scale. These Three easy pieces for piano duet, with a very simple seconda part under a more elaborate prima, were no doubt intended to engage and amuse his two elder children, Theodore (aged seven) and Ludmila (aged six); at four years of age, Soulima might have been a bit young to take part but, as a future professional pianist, would no doubt have been listening intently. The composer’s biographer Stephen Walsh notes the basic idea of ‘modelling on 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. The ‘March’, dedicated to the pianist and composer Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), is based on the old Irish folk-song ‘The blacksmith and his son’ which Stravinsky had found in London the previous year. The ‘Waltz’, dedicated to Erik Satie, clearly does homage to the latter’s technically simple piano music. The ‘Polka’ is dedicated to Diaghilev, with whom Stravinsky played the pieces in February 1915, venturing to explain to the impresario that he ‘had thought of him as a circus ring-master in evening dress and top hat, cracking his whip and urging on a horseback rider’. After a tense pause, Diaghilev finally decided to see the joke…
The nineteen-year-old Francis Poulenc finished his Sonata for four hands in June 1918, while still under the influence of Satie’s Socrate and its lessons of purity, balance and reserve. Certainly the sonata owes nothing to the essentially lyrical piano duets of Fauré, Debussy or Ravel. Instead ‘purity’ is at work in the C major without accidentals of the central ‘Rustique’, ‘reserve’ in its ostinatos and short-winded phrases. The outer movements, though, are a good deal less pure, the ‘Prélude’ testifying to Poulenc’s enthusiasm for Bartók’s Allegro barbaro and Prokofiev’s Sarcasms. There is physical novelty too: in a display of unusual intimacy, the prima player’s left hand starts below the seconda’s left hand. As in other Poulenc works of the time, folksy little snippets do duty for melodies. The ‘Final’ begins in purity, but this is soon sullied by locomotive-like hoots in the prima part, and the rest of the movement is driven by interplay between good and bad harmonic behaviour. 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.
1-01. Paul Lewis – Fauré: Dolly Suite, Op. 56: I. Berceuse (02:16)
1-02. Paul Lewis – Fauré: Dolly Suite, Op. 56: II. Mi-a-ou (01:44)
1-03. Paul Lewis – Fauré: Dolly Suite, Op. 56: III. Le jardin de Dolly (02:17)
1-04. Paul Lewis – Fauré: Dolly Suite, Op. 56: IV. Kitty-valse (02:17)
1-05. Steven Osborne – Fauré: Dolly Suite, Op. 56: V. Tendresse (02:51)
1-06. Steven Osborne – Fauré: Dolly Suite, Op. 56: VI. Le pas espagnol (01:57)
1-07. Steven Osborne – Poulenc: Sonata for 4 Hands, FP 8: I Prélude. Modéré (02:12)
1-08. Paul Lewis – Poulenc: Sonata for 4 Hands, FP 8: II. Rustique. Naïf et lent (01:56)
1-09. Paul Lewis – Poulenc: Sonata for 4 Hands, FP 8: III. Final. Très vite (01:47)
1-10. Steven Osborne – Debussy: 6 Épigraphes antiques, CD 139: I. Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d’été (02:09)
1-11. Steven Osborne – Debussy: 6 Épigraphes antiques, CD 139: II. Pour un tombeau sans nom (04:05)
1-12. Steven Osborne – Debussy: 6 Épigraphes antiques, CD 139: III. Pour que la nuit soit propice (02:27)
1-13. Paul Lewis – Debussy: 6 Épigraphes antiques, CD 139: IV. Pour la danseuse aux crotales (01:58)
1-14. Paul Lewis – Debussy: 6 Épigraphes antiques, CD 139: V. Pour l’égyptienne (03:11)
1-15. Paul Lewis – Debussy: 6 Épigraphes antiques, CD 139: VI. Pour remercier la pluie au matin (02:10)
1-16. Paul Lewis – Debussy: Petite Suite, CD 71a: I. En bateau (03:53)
1-17. Paul Lewis – Debussy: Petite Suite, CD 71a: II. Cortège (03:15)
1-18. Paul Lewis – Debussy: Petite Suite, CD 71a: III. Menuet (02:42)
1-19. Paul Lewis – Debussy: Petite Suite, CD 71a: IV. Ballet (03:17)
1-20. Paul Lewis – Stravinsky: 3 Easy Pieces, K021: I. March (01:16)
1-21. Paul Lewis – Stravinsky: 3 Easy Pieces, K021: II. Waltz (01:56)
1-22. Paul Lewis – Stravinsky: 3 Easy Pieces, K021: III. Polka (00:55)
1-23. Paul Lewis – Ravel: Ma mère l’oye, Suite, M. 60: I. Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (01:36)
1-24. Paul Lewis – Ravel: Ma mère l’oye, Suite, M. 60: II. Petit Poucet (03:14)
1-25. Paul Lewis – Ravel: Ma mère l’oye, Suite, M. 60: III. Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes (03:17)
1-26. Paul Lewis – Ravel: Ma mère l’oye, Suite, M. 60: IV. Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête (03:57)
1-27. Paul Lewis – Ravel: Ma mère l’oye, Suite, M. 60: V. Le jardin féerique (03:37)
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