French Music for Two Pianos
Martin Jones, Adrian Farmer (pianos)
rec. 2019/2022, Wyastone Leys, UK
Nimbus Records NI5953 [2 CDs: 151]
Since the time of Mozart, many composers have written works for two pianos and for piano four-hands; the latter was an integral part of 19th century domestic entertainment. French composers have been major contributors to this repertoire, from Camille Saint-Saëns to Olivier Messiaen and beyond. Martin Jones and Adrian Farmer have already recorded duo/duet works by Jean Roger-Ducasse (review ~ review), Jean Françaix (review ~ review), and Saint-Saëns (review). In this two-disc set they turn their attention to the music of three more French composers, Reynaldo Hahn, Charles Koechlin and Germaine Tailleferre.
Charles Koechlin was long-lived and very prolific. His name may be familiar to some readers from his works inspired by Kipling’s Jungle Book or those he wrote about Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s. But he had many other inspirations: folk-music, medieval modes, socialism, astronomy and more. In this set we get a generous sampling of his works for piano duo/duet, including two suites and four sonatines; the latter are almost suites by another name. The Suite for Two Pianos Op. 6 has four movements, all marked Andantino (somewhat slow). They show the composer still under the influence of his teacher Gabriel Fauré, especially in the second movement, but the staccato notes in the fourth andantino are more typical Saint-Saëns.
Suite Op. 19 was originally written for piano four-hands, but – as the performers observe – all Koechlin’s works here were recorded on two pianos rather than one because it was felt this would make for a clearer sound, due to his ‘rigorous but sometimes impractical scoring”. The suite is in five movements, variously humorous, simple and wistful. The finale anticipates the style of Les Six, three of whose members studied with Koechlin.
The Sonatines Françaises date from 1919, a darker time in French history than that of the two suites. Yet, while there are some disturbances under the surface, the sonatines seem mostly retrospective, looking back at old forms with a modern viewpoint. A good example is L’apothéose des Pauvres, from the second sonatina. It starts like a chorale before proceeding to a medieval-sounding central section, and ends with an almost modern coda. The Menuet from the same sonatine is similar, but the true gem in this group is the Chant du soir, slightly more modern in style. This is not to be confused with the fine Chant du soir from the third sonatine, where some sadness breaks through the otherwise amiable surface. The last sonatine juxtaposes two very different Romances; they both demonstrate Koechlin’s interest in harmonic experimentation.
As noted, three of Les Six studied with Koechlin: Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre). Like Koechlin, Tailleferre made several fine additions to the piano duo repertoire. Here we have works from her whole career, from 1917, when she was 25, to 1979, when she was 87. She was composing until a few weeks before her death at 91. The early works already demonstrate a modern and individual voice, and a great sense of humor. The Image of 1918 is slightly Ravelian, but on Tailleferre’s terms, and the 1920 Fandango must be the courtliest piece of that type ever written. Deux Valses of 1928 are typical of the late 1920s, but Tailleferre adds her own melodic and harmonic twists to the prevailing style.
Almost twenty years later Tailleferre wrote her Intermezzo. Only four minutes long, it brilliantly demonstrates her melodic style and her comprehension of the piano duo medium. A little later, she met the American piano duo of Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, for whom she wrote the Toccata and the Sonata. The Toccata is also four minutes long, but has the same charm and energy, especially in the first movement. Tailleferre’s sonata is full of motoric energy in the first movement, while the Andantino that follows is sad and thoughtful, indeed somewhat grave. The final Allegro is a cheerful commentary on what has gone before.
Tailleferre was 87 when wrote the Choral and Variations. In his excellent notes, Dr. David Jones sees the Variations, all of them in “antique” forms, as a sentimental look backward. I found them more of a clever homage. But there is no gainsaying their depth of feeling or Tailleferre’s consummate artistry.
Reynaldo Hahn is best remembered for his songs, mostly written before 1900, and his series of operettas, starting twenty years later. But he wrote many other works in almost every form. Here we have Le Ruban Dénoué (The Ribbon Untied), a series of twelve waltzes. One is immediately struck by the incredible variety of emotions in these waltzes, not to mention the composer’s inventiveness. At the same time, the pieces have subtle interconnections and pay homage to other composers. A good example is #6, L’Anneau Perdu (The Lost Ring), which seems to have been written by Schumann and Satie in alternation. Another is #10, Les Baisers (Kisses), slightly reminiscent of Debussy, but with harmonic and melodic twists that the older composer probably would not have recognized. The Ruban Dénoué was written in 1915. Several of the waltzes, especially the first and the last, have an underlying sense of seriousness that seems to derive from that time. From the same year, we have the three lullabies written to aid the convalescence of the composer’s friend Henri Bardac after he was injured in the First Battle of the Aisne. Unlike the waltzes of Le Ruban Dénoué, these three andantinos (seemingly a favorite tempo of all three composers on these discs) have a folk-like quality eminently suited to their desired purpose.
Martin Jones and Adrian Farmer are masters of the French duo/duet repertory. Their coordination is well-nigh perfect. Even more impressive is each performer’s ability to bring out the instrumental colors of their part, as well as the individual contrapuntal lines. Their playing is aided by the proven acoustic of Wyastone Leys, Nimbus’s chosen venue, perfect for the bright sound of this repertoire. This brilliant collection of music deserves to be well known.
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Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947)
Caprice mélancolique, for 2 pianos [5:01]
Le ruban dénoué, 12 waltzes for 2 pianos [38:07]
Pour bercer un convalescent, for 2 pianos [4:58]
Charles Koechlin (1867-1950)
Suite for two pianos, Op. 6 [11:34]
Suite for piano duet, Op. 19 [14:41]
Sonatines Françaises pour piano à 4 mains, Op. 60
Sonatine No. 1 [7:36]
Sonatine No. 2 [10:33]
Sonatine No. 3 [5:38]
Sonatine No. 4 [6:49]
Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)
Jeux de plein air (Outdoor Games) [5:37]
Deux Valses pour deux pianos [3:34]
Sonate pour deux pianos [7:30]
Choral et variations [11:15]