ALBUM TITLE: Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Ibert, Poulenc
WORKS: Complete Works for Two Pianos: Sonata in F minor, Op. 34b; 5 Waltzes, Op. 39; Haydn Variations, Op. 56b; Carnival of the Animals; 5 Histoires: Babar the Elephant
PERFORMER: Jeremy Nicholas (narrator), David Nettle, Richard Markham (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: NEMACD 600
Listening to Brahms’s Piano Quintet in its earlier incarnation as a Sonata for Two Pianos can sometimes be a disconcerting experience.
All too often the composer’s tendency to write thickly scored and full-blooded textures for both instruments becomes aurally indigestible, especially given the huge dimensions of the work. But with 30 years of active concert experience together, David Nettle and Richard Markham have managed to devise suitable interpretative strategies for overcoming this problem, and here deliver a performance that is remarkable for its clarity of line, precision of ensemble and variety of tonal colouring.
Perhaps there are moments particularly in the outer movements where Martha Argerich and her different duo partners (on the EMI and Warner labels) bring an extra degree of fluidity and emotional impetuosity to the musical argument. But in the Scherzo, Nettle and Markham negotiate the technical difficulties of the writing with almost nonchalant ease.
The accompanying works on this disc are no less impressive: warmly affectionate accounts of the Five Waltzes and a vividly characterized version of the Haydn Variations. The Brahms disc was recorded as long ago as 1998 but has an immediacy and depth of sound which suits the playing.
There’s a similar clarity in the Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals release which was originally made even earlier in 1988. But here, the sound is perhaps a little dry, and the engineers haven’t quite solved the problems of balance between the two pianos and the instrumental ensemble, the lower strings in particular being less audible in certain places.
Nonetheless, as in their Brahms release, Nettle and Markham are in sparkling form, making the most of the helter-skelter semiquavers in ‘Wild Asses’ whilst being suitably reflective in the ‘Aquarium’.
Jeremy Nicholas’s amusing and wittily delivered verses make a refreshing change from the better-known Ogden Nash poems, though I’m not entirely sure to which audience they are directed as they seem a little too sophisticated in tone to appeal exclusively to children. Erik Levi