The CD at hand is titled Wedding Cake for more than one reason. Not only is the opening piece Saint-Saëns' frothy confection of the same title, but more importantly, the disc commemorates the 2009 wedding of Pascal Rogé with his musical and life partner Ami Hakuno; and it contains a world-premiere recording of a piece written especially for the couple by Japanese-American composer Paul Chihara. Onyx's own present to the Rogés (and to us) is excellent sound: rich but never overbearing as two-piano or duo-piano recordings can be. The 77 minutes (another nice gift) is mostly of French music, both classics of the duo-piano literature and a couple of transcriptions of orchestral masterpieces.
I'm not sure what to say about Saint-Saens' Wedding Cake (originally for single piano and strings and written as a wedding present for the pianist who premiered it) other than that it's a very pleasant, sparkling waltz. The Rogés certainly convey a sense of fun and effortlessness in their synchronization. It's followed by Gabriel Fauré's only piano four-hands work, the ‘Dolly' Suite. A kind of French “Scenes From Childhood,” the six-movement suite portrays daily-life scenes of Dolly, the small daughter of Fauré's love interest Emma Bardac: it consists of a limpid Berceuse (lullaby), the more playful Mi-a-ou (Dolly's brother), a calm Jardin de Dolly, the familiar, genial Kitty-Valse (really portraying a dog, according to Carenza Hugh-Jones' booklet note), the (naturally) gentle Tendresse, and the more brilliant Spanish Dance to conclude. The Rogés' performance is irreproachable, except that I missed — even in the passages of calm and leisure — a final touch of excitement, or maybe rhythmic incisiveness, or élan, that would lift the performance into the category of the truly memorable. I regret to say I felt this way as well about the Ravel and parts of the Debussy suite that follow.
Maurice Ravel wrote La Valse for a huge orchestra, but he did make transcriptions for one and two pianos. How you feel about the two-piano arrangement might depend on how indelibly the dazzling orchestration with its extreme dynamic contrasts is seared into your memory. Doubtless, as a French review of this CD that I consulted remarks, “the listener will be astonished to hear a thousand and one harmonic details habitually drowned in the orchestral tide,” and of course there can be a thrill to hear virtuoso performers tackle such a work. (Perhaps the thrill is greater in hearing a solo pianist attempt the notes than with duo pianists.) I enjoyed listening to the Rogés' traversal of the piece, but missed, for example, the eeriness of the opening bars of the orchestral La Valse, not to mention the hysterical dementia of its multiple climaxes. The Rogés offer some spectacular flourishes, but much of the performance sounds more like salon music, sans irony, than Ravel surely could have intended.
As a striking contrast, La Valse is followed by Claude Debussy's early masterpiece the Petite Suite (familiar to many in a later orchestration but originally intended for piano four-hands). The opening En Bateau finds the Rogés rowing their boat perhaps a little more briskly than is typical, rather than dreamily drifting downstream. It's not so much a matter of tempo as of a certain crispness in their performance — which is quite fine. The Cortège that follows has a vivacity, along with a playfulness in the middle section, that makes this one of the most pleasing performances on the CD. However, Debussy's quirky, wistful Menuet is played more matter-of-fact than I would like, especially in the trio section, where I wish the Rogés had dwelt more on the little felicities of the score—a special harmony here or turn of phrase there. The Ballet finale is appropriately dashing.
Next is another transcription (by the composer himself, though the booklet note doesn't make this clear): Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice. On first listening I couldn't help but miss the orchestral colors — especially the bassoons — and the tempestuous climaxes, but on repeated hearings I increasingly enjoyed the wit, character, and momentum that the Rogés bring to this arrangement. It would be great fun to see them perform it live.
And for other reasons one would want to see the Paul Chihara suite, Ami, live. It is explicitly a portrait of the couple (despite only Ami's name in the title). For example, in the third movement, “Pascal Rag,” according to the composer's program note, M. Rogé's part features music “filled with love” for Mme. Rogé, whose own part “is full of counterpoint and commentary.” (This listener was not always able to make out the separate voices.) The work is nothing is not playful and allusive: the first movement alone is not only “like a piano lesson, or musical game, between two pianists just meeting” — it also quotes a “happy cowboy tune” from a movie of Chihara's childhood, and the “game” music turns into a portrait of fireflies (hence the Japanese title, Hotaru), using a 12-tone row from Webern's Variations for Piano, Op. 27!
The second movement, “Love Song,” “is in the style of an American pop ballad, with references to Tristan und Isolde and the Prelude à l'après-midi d'un faune,” according to Chihara. To my ears, some quotations of the “big theme” of the slow movement of Gershwin's Piano Concerto are more prominent than the allusions to Wagner and Debussy, which appear most noticeably in the movement's slower coda. (But perhaps there is a kinship between the first three notes of Gershwin's tune and a similar pattern in the Tristan Prelude that most of us have not noticed?)
The Debussy quotation shows up again in both Pascal Rag (which has a few finger snappings too) and Aka Tombo, the fourth movement, based on a Japanese folk song about a dragonfly, while the Finale briefly quotes Francis Poulenc's Piano Concerto (not his Two-Piano Concerto as one might expect, considering it's in the Rogés' repertoire) as well as the “game” music, the Gershwin tune, and most prominently the pop-ballad love theme from the second movement. Altogether it's a quite entertaining piece, despite being a work of private references and jokes.
And it makes a good segue into the final pieces on the program, two short works by Poulenc. Élegie begins simply, with a melody in a slow three-quarter time, but with an elegance and harmonic sophistication that are far from simple. The middle section is considerably more impassioned, and the return to the “simple” melody leads to unexpected developments before the close. It's a superb piece, utterly Poulenc in every bar, played with great feeling by the Rogés. Finally, the Embarkation for Cythera is as much a witty “trifle” as the Saint-Saëns Wedding Cake. The title alludes to a Watteau painting of couples heading off to the Isle of Love — and thus the piece fittingly concludes this celebratory CD. While I haven't been able to offer a congratulatory toast to every performance on the disc, I certainly have enjoyed making its acquaintance overall, and appreciated the clarity and warmth of Onyx's recording.