Rachmaninoff Piano Duets: Suite No. 1 for Two Pianos Op. 5. Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos Op. 17. Symphonic Dances Op. 45. Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier, pianos. Chandos 10882. Total Time: 78:34.
Poulenc: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra S146. Aubade for Piano and Eighteen Instruments S51. Concerto for Two Pianos S61. Sonata S8 for Piano Four Hands. Elegie for Two Pianos S175. L’Embarquement pour Cythère S150 for Two Pianos. BBC Philharmonic/Edward Gardner. Chandos 10875. Total Time: 72:44.
Most of the music on these two new CDs is repertoire that the average music-lover will rarely encounter in a lifetime of concert-going. And what a loss! This is glorious music for the most part that has given me enormous pleasure over the years.
The Rachmaninoff Suites are particularly outstanding. The composer remained decidedly conservative throughout his life, scarcely appearing to notice that figures like Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Prokofiev and Bartók were breaking new ground around him left and right. What Rachmaninoff offered instead was a wealth of melody and a unique sense of what the piano – or two pianos – could do. The highlight of the Suite No. 1 is surely Rachmaninoff’s awesome evocation of Russian bells, with sonorities one would not have thought possible from two keyboards. The second suite is notable for its extraordinary dovetailing of lines from the two pianists. What an imagination, to create such textures!
The Symphonic Dances are best known, of course, in their orchestrated versions, and one can’t help but miss the way Rachmaninoff used the various instruments. In the first movement, for example, not even Rachmaninoff can duplicate the beautiful melancholy of the alto saxophone on piano keyboards.
In 1999, Emanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman recorded these same pieces (Sony Classical SK 61767), and their playing was superb. On this new Chandos CD, Canadian pianists Lortie and Mercier are every bit as good. Whichever CDs you choose, do yourself a favour and get to know these magnificent pieces.
Lortie and his long-time friend and colleague Hélène Mercier are also in fine form on the Poulenc CD. Though not quite on the same rarified level as the Rachmaninoff, the music on this recording is top-drawer and often surprising Poulenc.
For purposes of comparison, the Aubade received a near-definitive recording in 1998 with Pascal Rogé at the keyboard and Charles Dutoit conducting the Orchestre National de France (LondonDecca 452 937); it remains superior to the Lortie/Mercier/BBC Philharmonic version for its better recording quality and fine solo playing in the orchestra.
That said, this new release belongs in every Poulenc collection for its consistency and comprehensiveness. And any two-piano team looking for encores should look no further than the charming L’embarquement pour Cythère written in 1951 for Gold and Fizdale.