New Classical Tracks - Vladimir and Vovka Ashkenazy: Debussy & Ravel: Music For Two Pianos

by Valerie Kahler, Minnesota Public Radio
August 25, 2009

St. Paul, Minn. — First, let's get the terminology straight: music for piano four hands (also known as piano duet) vs. music for two pianos. Piano four hands means what you think it means: one piano with two pianists, side by side on the piano bench, one taking the high end of the keyboard and the other playing the low end. Cozy, intimate, lovely... but still restricted to the 88 keys of a single piano.

Ah, but when you have TWO pianos, you have at your fingertips greater dynamic range, thicker voicing in all registers and stereophonic sound, even from the unison sections.

It's music for two pianos that appears on this new disc. One of the players is Vladimir Ashkenazy, who's one of the great pianists of recent decades, and the other player is his son Vovka.

Composers were particularly fond of two pianos when it came to versions of orchestral compositions. It was a way for folks to become acquainted with a new orchestral work, or to remind themselves of one they'd already heard and loved. Maurice Ravel's "La Valse" was given the two-piano treatment as a sort of test-drive for ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

We start in murkiness, which slowly gives way as the mists clear to reveal a ballroom full of dancing couples. The two pianos afford a broader palette for Ravel to prolong the play between mist and clarity...and later, the necessary volume and presence for the anxious climax. It's a desperate kind of sound; the waltz pushed to an almost grotesque level, as if the dancers think they can keep the war at bay if only the music and dance are loud and frantic enough.

Claude Debussy also turned to his music to deal with the demons of war. He said at one point, "I want to work not so much for myself, but to give proof, however small it may be, that not even 30 million Germans can destroy French thought." In his "En blanc et noir" ("In white and black") he takes a trumpet reveille and spins it into a reverie. His military march is transformed into a dance. Even what he called the "poisonous vapors" of the German chorale "Ein' feste Burg" are absorbed into -- and obscured by -- the dance.

Happily, there are also peacetime uses for a pair of pianos. Debussy's "Lindaraja" paints a picture of the Arab-influenced gardens at Alhambra, and a fountain, Lindaraja, "the eye of the house of A'isha." Ravel's "Rapsodie espagnole" evokes the scents and sights and sounds of Spain. The piece would eventually become his first orchestral work, but in the capable hands of Vladimir and Vovka Ashkenazy, Ravel's original version for two pianos is so full of nuance and color that you scarcely miss the orchestra.

This new release is the first full-length recording from father and son Ashkenazy, although Vovka did sit in on a couple of tracks on Vladimir's 2002 release of Rachmaninov transcriptions. Vovka has said that while being the son of Vladimir Ashkenazy has had both its benefits and its drawbacks, his father deliberately stood back so that he could find his own path as a pianist--a path that now converges with that of his father in this celebration of what two pianos can do.

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