- Paul Lewis (piano); Steven Osborne (piano)
- Recorded 2020
- Hyperion CDA68329 (1CD)
This is a stunning disc. Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne have had distinctive careers and earned a reputation as doyens of modern British pianism, but they are also astonishingly fine chamber music players, having collaborated back in 2010 on a disc of Schubert’s piano duets, a recording that I still value very highly. But with this disc of French pieces for four hands, they surpass themselves.
The program they have assembled is a wonderfully diverse assortment, ranging from the fantastical and childlike, to the rambunctious and grotesque, and to the quaint and enigmatic. Lewis and Osborne run the gamut of emotions and styles with a naturalness and sensitivity that beggars belief. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the neglected Six épigraphes antiques, where Debussy’s endlessly shifting, tantalizingly ambiguous modal harmonies are realized with unprecedented vividness thanks to the artists’ boundless tonal palette and infinite gradations of touch and color, evoking the great Debussy pianists like Gieseking and Michelangeli. But they do not hold back from the innate brutality and dry humor in the more angular pieces such as Stravinsky’s Three Easy Pieces and Poulenc’s Sonata for Four Hands, and they negotiate the tricky rhythms with a unanimity of attack that borders on the miraculous.
I suppose for many listeners the attraction of this disc are the three popular duets, the scores of which must have graced the music stands of many an amateur pianist: Debussy’s Petite Suite, Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye, and Fauré’s Dolly. Lewis and Osborne imbue them with a sincerity and simplicity of utterance that is deeply moving. The Debussy is given an impeccable reading, featuring a gently atmospheric but never saccharine En Bateau and a delightfully perky final Ballet that is guaranteed to get your toes tapping. In the Ravel, the pianists’ unaffected, unsentimental approach and emphasis on horizontal flow is refreshing and belies the work’s reputation as an overplayed child’s piece, but I can imagine listeners wanting a bit more mystery at a slower tempo in Petit Poucet, and perhaps more rhetorical emphasis at the climax. Thankfully, however, the final Fairy Garden apotheosis is as luminous and magical as one could wish for. And in the Dolly Suite, the pianists deliver a charmingly tender interpretation, until the final Spanish dance where they pull out all the stops for a dazzlingly vibrant technical tour-de-force. But what unites all these performances is a palpable sense that the pianists are truly enjoying themselves – a quality that makes these evergreen pieces sound a fresh as a daisy.
Apart from the tiny quibble I have in the Ravel, these are standard-setting performances of these delightful works, and so is Hyperion’s superbly realistic engineering. If you want to hear an example of how two dissimilar, highly individual artists can live and breathe music together as a single organism, in a program showcasing their chameleon-like stylistic flexibility, look no further. This is as perfect a recording of these works as one could imagine, and I recommend it with all possible enthusiasm.
These are benchmark-setting performances of a delectably variegated program of French piano duets. Lewis and Osborne respond to the composers’ every whim with uncommon sensitivity, in an amazingly unified approach that sounds as if only one pair of hands was at the keyboard. A piano duet album for the ages.