Paris joyeux & triste
Personally, I’ve never been convinced that Stravinsky’s transcription of his 1938 chamber-orchestra piece Dumbarton Oaks does his music (as opposed to its promotion, or the composer’s own bank account – that’s why he wrote it) many favours. Transfer its brittle and salty tone (dry, yet immediately appealing to the taste buds) to the piano, two of them in particular, and the featherweight bounce of Stravinsky’s original concept begins to land its punches a little too heavily.
Which is not say that Alexei Lubimov and Slava Poprugin, performing on various Parisian period instruments, don’t play sensitively. Tempo giusto is what Stravinsky writes and what he gets here: the music’s inner engine is kick-started directly by the consequence of line driving against line, Lubimov and Poprugin diligently cruising ahead as the spaghetti junction of Stravinsky’s counterpoint begins to unwind, never for a moment sounding as if they’re relying on interpretative satnav. Why does the experience feel ultimately unsatisfying though? Partly because the echoey recording smudges the clarity of the playing, leaving the ears a little jaded. But also because, as in the beginning of the central Allegretto, you can’t help but recall an aural imprint of the original instrumentation – and the pirouetting delicacy of those strings is missed.
Elsewhere, things perk up considerably. Even if the transcription John Cage made of Erik Satie’s 1919 Socrate in 1944 is so arid it almost crumbles into your ear (even Stephen Walsh’s booklet-note breaks the fourth wall by expressing discreet disdain), Lubimov and Poprugin deliver a top-notch version of Stravinsky’s Concerto for two pianos (1935), the vibrant colour spectrum of their playing making the piece feel more multi-dimensional than the dowdy and rhythmically boxy performance Katia and Marielle Labèque released on their own label in 2007. But the best comes last. Darius Milhaud’s four-hand transcription of Satie’s ‘Cinéma’ from Relâche (1924) is sexed up by being played on a prepared piano and the chugging, Keystone Kops chase atmosphere duly invoked matches the source material unerringly. Motoric rhythms bulldoze and collide, with quickfire repeated notes ricocheting like a rapper’s cadence.