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Debussy, Ravel: Music for Two Pianos / Ashkenazys

Release Date: 08/25/2009 
Label:  Decca   Catalog #: 001312902   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Claude DebussyMaurice Ravel
Performer:  Vladimir AshkenazyVovka Ashkenazy
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 6 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

A real winner. From the electric excitement of the opening En blanc et noir, through the hazy mysteries of Jeux, and the luminous colors of the Rapsodie espagnole, to the inexorable hysteria of La Valse, Ashkenazy père and fils turn in performances that match the music for poise, drive, and technical brilliance. Some might find their sonorities a bit hard-edged at points -- should the opening of En blanc et noir and the close of La Valse really be hit so strongly? -- but the results are so consistently thrilling that most listeners are likely to be swept away.

– James Leonard, All Music Guide

DEBUSSY En blanc et noir. Jeux. Lindaraja.
Read more RAVEL Sites auriculaires: Entre cloches. Rapsodie espagnole. La valse Vladimir Ashkenazy (pn); Vovka Ashkenazy (pn) DECCA 001312902 (66:04)

Vladimir Ashkenazy seemed intent on recording everything in the standard repertoire when he was at the height of his solo piano career in the 1970s. Inevitably, critics would arise to express doubt that one musician could cover so much material so fast, and get it right. One of his contemporaries, the even more prolific conductor Neville Marriner, heard the same complaints. For this listener, the charges do not really hold up in either case. I will admit that there are few cases where I would choose a recording by these artists for my desert-island collection (you know, that wonderful island that happens to be equipped with a state of the art, solar-powered stereo system), even as I continue to marvel at their consistent level of excellence. I think I would be perfectly happy, though, to have Ashkenazy’s Chopin on the island, which, by virtue of his extraordinary dexterity, clarity, and natural pulse is as good as any other. It is true that Ashkenazy can “prettify” some music, Beethoven, for example, but that may be partially due to the naturally beautiful finish to his technique.

With this program of Debussy and Ravel, it is hard to make the music too pretty. The Ashkenazy sound suits this lush, delicately textured music well. This is my first encounter with the son of famed Vladimir. Vovka Ashkenazy was born in Moscow, and moved to Iceland with his family at the age of six. His teachers included Leon Fleisher, Peter Frankl, and his father. His brother Dmitri is also a professional pianist. From what I can tell, his growing discography is dominated by chamber music playing, including a previous father and son outing, also from Decca. It is not easy to differentiate between the pianists on this recording, which can be taken as a high compliment to Vovka Ashkenazy. They achieve a high level of clarity and precise coordination, just the ticket for a four-hand piano recital. The closer, La valse , is no less controlled, but with the requisite raucousness to show that the Ashkenazy family knows how to have some fun.

FANFARE: Peter Burwasser

I cannot recall Vladimir Ashkenazy being associated with the music of the French Impressionists until now. This teaming with his son Vovka provides an illuminating and exciting vision of these works.
The programme kicks off with Debussy and his three pieces under the collective heading of En blanc et noir. The first, ‘Avec emportement’ has the pianists vigorously dancing around each other in startling staccatos and lethargic legatos. The second, ‘Lent-sombre’ is just that - melancholic patterns turning macabre as the Ashkenazys explore their pianos’ bass sonorities. A dogged march marks the quicker middle section. It is easy to imagine, as Debussy intended, this central piece as a protest against the savageries of the Great War. In the concluding sardonic ‘Scherzando’, the two pianos counterpoint grotesque protests verging on the hysterical. The album’s note-writer, Roger Nichols, suggests, ‘Debussy’s awareness of his own declining health’ might have influenced this music.
Diaghilev’s ballet, Jeux was produced in 1913. Debussy provided a solo piano score for the dancers to learn from. He promised his publishers a two-piano version but never got round to complying. On this disc we hear the arrangement by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Tellingly it follows the substance and delicacy of Debussy’s orchestral version. The Ashkenazys, aided by occasional eerie cymbal brush-strokes, admirably convey the elusive, sensual, playful - almost cruelly playful at times - nature of the work.
Lindaraja was a response to Ravel’s ‘Habanera’, one of two of that composer’s Sites auriculaires. It is played as the third movement of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole on this CD (see below). Debussy, like Ravel, challenges the basic monotony of the Habanera form and creates imaginative diversity with subtle shifts of dynamic, tempi and inflection.
The Ashkenazys capture of Ravel’s individual and intricately-coalescing bell sonorities and rhythms in ‘Entre cloches’ is well-defined, softly enchanting and tantalizingly exciting. That said, in their climax, one wonders if their reading might not have been a little too loud and overwhelming.
It might come as a surprise to learn that Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole was originally written for two pianos and orchestrated by Ravel when he received complaints about the difficulty of his keyboard writing. As the Ashkenazys prove this version has colour and atmosphere enough. There are silvery, pellucid, sensual tones for the nocturne (‘Prélude à la nuit’). There’s also voluptuousness implicit in both the ‘Malaguena’ and the ‘Habanera’; how resourcefully the monotony of the circling ostinatos in these pieces are circumnavigated. Wildness, with a central wistful melancholy, informs the concluding ‘Feria’.
Ravel conversely arranged his orchestral ‘Poème choréographique’ - La Valse, for two pianos. It works very well in that form. The pianists nicely evoke the work’s spectral opening. They then sharply contrast the old-world Viennese glamour and sophistication - all chandelier-lit ballrooms, swirling ball gowns and dashing uniforms - with the contrasting sardonic bitterness and brutality Ravel later imposes on this waltz. As Roger Nichols suggests, it is “… a terrifying, Expressionist howl of anguish. Ravel forcibly denied it was inspired by the state of Vienna after the (Great) War; he did not deny (probably because no one had the temerity to suggest it to him) that it grew out of his experiences as a lorry driver during the war …’
– Ian Lace, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

En blanc et noir by Claude Debussy
Performer:  Vladimir Ashkenazy (Piano), Vovka Ashkenazy (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1915; France 
Jeux by Claude Debussy
Performer:  Vladimir Ashkenazy (Piano), Vovka Ashkenazy (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1912-1913; France 
Lindaraja by Claude Debussy
Performer:  Vladimir Ashkenazy (Piano), Vovka Ashkenazy (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1901; France 
Sites auriculaires: Entre cloches by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Vladimir Ashkenazy (Piano), Vovka Ashkenazy (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1895-1897; France 
Rapsodie espagnole by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Vladimir Ashkenazy (Piano), Vovka Ashkenazy (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1907-1908; France 
La valse by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Vladimir Ashkenazy (Piano), Vovka Ashkenazy (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1920; France 

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