Get ready to program your CD player or brush up on your French. This production is all-French. (But it's worth it)
If you're like me, you probably don't program your CD player very often, and when you find the need, have to remind yourself how to do it. My Yamaha CD-S2100 has many faults - fundamentally and operationally - and programming it is a tedious task. So when a disc like this one from Alpha Classics comes along, I groan at the thought of going to all the trouble. But unless you speak French, it really is necessary.
This is a splendid program of French music featuring duo pianos. That being said, one should be aware that everything about this release is in French - not just the music, but the booklet (there is no English translation anywhere) and the irritating narration, spoken in French. Oh I know, this is French music played by a French orchestra so I shouldn't expect the narrator to speak English. But to not even have translations in the booklet? That is odd.
Every section of The Carnival of the Animals begins with narration. And if my Google translator is right, the text is not the familiar one by Ogden Nash, but something new, written by our narrator here (Belgian comedian, Alex Vizorek). Fortunately each verse is separately tracked so I can program the CD player to skip it. (Of course one can simply press the skip button each time, if you're fast enough with the remote). Once accomplished (no easy feat - there are 30 tracks to sort through), musically, this is a splendid Carnival. It is very well played by what sounds like a reduced number of orchestral strings, along with the pianists and soloists. Thus it is not the original version for 11 players, but there is a chamber feel to it. The music-making is fresh and very well characterized. As if anyone really needs yet another Carnival of the Animals, this one is worth it - especially for track 24, "Pianists". This is a hilariously mistake-riddled, clumsy depiction of a student practicing their scales! Not only by the pianists, but the lack of coordination with the orchestra as well. And it sounds so spontaneous, I literally laughed out loud so hard I had to listen to it a second time! There are only a handful of other recordings which are similarly performed, and two come immediately to mind - the one from the Capucon brothers and friends on a 2003 Virgin CD and - the most hilarious one of all - the side-splitting account by I Musici de Montreal on a 1993 Chandos. What great fun it is to hear professional pianists bring this off so convincingly!
Elsewhere, Persons with Long Ears is splendidly vivid, as played by the closely-mic'd dueling violin sections; the clarinet and flute solos are nicely done; and Aquarium features what sounds like something similar to a real glass harmonica - that is until the glissandi near the end, where it then suddenly sounds like a glockenspiel. The booklet makes no mention of the instrumentation used, but I suspect they perhaps used tuned water glasses for the simple notes in the first section, but had to resort to the glockenspiel for the full-octave scales later on. We'll never know for sure because the booklet doesn't tell us (at least not that I can see within its French-only text). In any event, it is an extraordinarily atmospheric, serene account, which truly does enable one to envision the tranquility of fish swimming around in an aquarium. Very nice!
Speaking of the booklet, it's odd it also fails to name the orchestral soloists. One can presume they are the principals of the orchestra, but again we'll never know for sure. Confusingly, the booklet lists the orchestral personnel, ascribing a single asterisk to those members playing the Saint-Saens. But no asterisk appears for any of the flute or double bass players, but there is one for the clarinet and cello. So it's a mystery.
Moving on to Poulenc's marvelous Concerto for Two Pianos, we are transported to an appropriately bigger soundstage - a larger hall acoustic, with more players, and a stronger, fuller orchestral presence. As a matter of fact, the first movement is weightier than usual (strictly observing the non-troppo part of the Allegro indication). It comes across a little choppy in its clipped, forceful articulation, and sounds a bit clownish - almost a caricature of the piece. But glancing at the score, that is exactly the way Poulenc scored it. Right from the opening, the dynamic marking is ff, and those pounding, orchestral 8th-note punctuations are marked "sec" (dry), and sff, and the string downbows a few bars later continue to be marked ff. So kudos to conductor Lucie Leguay for faithfully executing the score. And it works, as there are also many musical touches along the way. The recording helps too, with the pianos realistically spread apart, providing terrific 3-dimensional imaging in an ear-catching way.
The second movement goes along uneventfully, in a rather matter-of-fact manner. The finale then takes off with a vigorous tempo and high energy. And there is a most delightful interlude, just before the final peroration, which is full of color and atmosphere. The final section then dashes off in a flash to the end.
The recording engineers do not spotlight the pianos, but allow the orchestra a chance to make a full impact. And Leguay encourages an energetic contribution from all sections the orchestra, without ever swamping the pianos. The acoustic remains clear and uncongested even in climaxes.
This all-female Poulenc brings to mind another one featuring an all-female cast - the 2015 Capriccio recording with Mona & Rica Bard (pianists) and Ariane Matiakh conducting. Both performances are well-played and full of imaginative touches. But the Bards bring even stronger characterization to the variety of moods - more playful here, more musically expressive there. Their slow movement in particular is especially moving. (My review of it appears elsewhere on this blog.) However, the Alpha Classics is better recorded. The Capriccio provides plenty of gusto but is a bit unrefined on top and has a slightly unnatural acoustic. So it's a toss up and I wouldn't want to be without either.
As enjoyable as both these readings are, however, neither displaces my two current favorites of the work - the Jussen brothers on DG and Eric Le Sage on RCA - perhaps coincidentally, both with the benefit of Stephane Deneve conducting. Both versions display unsurpassed combinations of spontaneity, characterization, lyrical expression, precision of playing, superb orchestral support and dazzling bravura and vigor - making for thrilling experiences.
Rounding off this concert, the Danse Macabre comes as an anti-climatic afterthought which I could certainly do without. Annoyingly - VERY annoyingly, actually - it begins with yet more unwelcomed French talking by our narrator. Why? And when the music begins, it turns out to be a two-piano version rather than the famous orchestral one. (This is yet another important little tidbit of information the booklet, or track listing, fails to mention.) Oh it's played well and the arrangement is just fine. But coming after the ebullient double concerto, and with an unexpected French introduction, I was irritated by it. It surely should have been presented earlier in the concert.
But never mind my grumpiness. This is a most enjoyable concert - expertly played and superbly recorded. Just be prepared to relearn how to program your CD player before you sit down for a listen. You'll want to skip all the narration (unless you happen to speak French) and certainly should program Danse Macabre to come somewhere before the double concerto.
And still...the booklet bothers me, for all the reasons noted above.