I harshly criticized this duo's DG disc of Mozart Two Piano Concertos as being as bland and as uninteresting as one could possibly imagine. And I blamed 91-year-old Marriner's conducting as the main culprit.
This newest disc from this duo begins similarly. This Carnival of the Animals is the most uninspired, curiously under-characterized account I have ever heard. It is played absolutely "straight", exactly as written, with no insight, charm, imagination or fun whatsoever. And not just by the pianists; the same comes from the RCO chamber players (this is the original version).
After a big yawn, fortunately things change very much for the better when Stephane Deneve steps up to the podium for the Poulenc Two Piano Concerto. I've said it over and over before and I'll reiterate now - the conductor is most certainly as important in a concerto as the soloist(s). And that is certainly born out here. This Poulenc positively leaps off the printed score - with an exciting, cracking tempo right out of the gate. Orchestra and pianists alike come to life with real power, precision, and a heretofore unrealized sense of youthful freshness and energy from these young pianists. Tempos are very quick in all 3 movements, and the execution of the busy finger-work from both soloists is assured, crisp, clean and exciting. The orchestral contribution is exceptional; the excellent recording quality revealing much inner detail and intricacies throughout the orchestra which are often obscured.
As to comparisons, this Poulenc is not quite up to the magnificent standards of some of my favorite versions (the Bards on Capriccio and Le Sage on RCA, to name just two) in the overt characterization of the many variety of moods in this piece. (The Bards had me laughing out loud at their playfulness in the Finale!). But this is very entertaining and exciting. And, as noted above, the recording is excellent - certainly better than the slightly artificial acoustic heard on the Capriccio disc.
Rounding out this program is Fazil Say's terrific Night, for piano four-hands, which was commissioned by the Beecham Society for the Jussens. It is wonderfully inventive, atmospheric, exciting and involving. The boys do a great job bringing this piece to life, providing its premier recording. I hope other piano duos will record it as well.
As fabulous as the Poulenc and Say pieces are here, I can only conclude that the record producers decided to add the Saint-Saens as a filler. And it certainly sounds as if that's all it is - a mere afterthought that no one really wanted to do. It is mediocre and unimaginably boring. And making matters worse, DG inserts very long pauses in between sections, dragging it out even further. But it is certainly nice to hear these young men at their very best in the Poulenc, proving once again that a good conductor can make all the difference.