CLASSICAL: From camp-fire to concert-hall

Accordionists James Crabb and Geir Draugsvoll are determined to give the old squeeze-box a whole new repertoire. By Robert Cowan
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When Igor Stravinsky scored rage and jealousy into his Petrushka ballet, he used a full orchestra. But when classical accordionists James Crabb and Geir Draugsvoll share Petrushka between them - as they do on their new disc for EMI - the effect is almost as dramatic. The transcription is their own, and it's an astonishing tour de force, colour-flooded in the crowd scenes, folk-like where Stravinsky conjures up the fairground (ie, in the "Russian Dance" and "Waltz") and with the pathos of a master puppeteer in "Petrushka's Death". Scene-changes are drummed on open bellows with repeated notes for backing and there's a lone tambourine crash for the death scene (Geir does the honours).

Crabb and Draugsvoll play as one. They're both 30, they look remarkably alike and they both pursue active solo careers. The two lads met in Copenhagen as pupils of Mogens Ellegaard, "one of the major pioneers of the instrument, who just happened to be a Dane," says Crabb, his native Dundee accent tinged with just a smidgen of Danish. "Actually, the accordion isn't a terribly popular instrument in Denmark, though it is in the surrounding Nordic countries," he says; "but at the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music it attracts students from far and wide." Both players were influenced by hearing the accordion at home, Crabb by his father (who was self-taught), Draugsvoll by the local popularity of the instrument.

James Crabb made his debut in 1992 as a member of the Park Lane Group and has since gained recognition on the international concert stage. Norwegian- born Geir Draugsvoll chides his colleague for undue modesty, and yet can himself chalk up a number of notable successes, including solo CDs - mostly of contemporary music - for Simax, BIS and DaCapo. This latest disc, however, is released as part of a brave "Debut" series issued by EMI at bargain price and centring on the talents of selected younger artists.

The couplings for Petrushka are Stravinsky's sultry Tango and a dazzling transcription of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition that exploits the instrument's colouristic potential to the full. So, what else do they play? "Mozart's big Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments," Crabb tells me; "his F minor organ Fantasy and we're currently working on Lutoslawski's Paganini Variations. We'd also love to do Bach at some point."

As to Petrushka, it was the Suite that came first. "Some of the music seemed to us particularly suited to the classical accordion," says Draugsvoll, "an instrument that is immensely popular in Russia. We soon wanted to try the whole score and have since performed the ballet twice in concert - to a positive, even amazed response!" Crabb stresses that their transcriptions (which are always genuine "joint-efforts") are undertaken "from a purely musical point of view, and not just for the sport of it. But because the instrument has so many technical possibilities, it is very easy to get carried away with its 'virtuoso' potential. Our main priority is to be loyal to the composer and to the score, and that goes for all our transcriptions; it is the starting-point of everything we do."

Crabb and Draugsvoll make a speciality of contemporary music, but they feel that there is a whole new world awaiting both the classical accordion and those composers who might decide to write for it. Crabb considers that audience response is dictated largely by choice of repertoire. "It depends on the kind of music that you approach the average listener with," he says; "if you hit them with a new instrument and a whole load of contemporary music, nine times out of 10 you'll get a negative response no matter what. But if you approach them with something that is perhaps more appealing, you gain more in that way. For my own part, I feel that the most important thing is to approach and perform repertoire that I consider is worthy of representing and which functions. If people like it, that's fine; and if they don't like it, that's also fine. We're not prepared to go half way, trying to make everybody happy just for the sake of it. We're artists; we play what we feel we want to play."

Crabb laments the fact that there hasn't really been an "education" for the instrument until relatively recently ("the Royal Academy accepted it only 10 years or so ago"), although, in that respect at least, the Russians, Norwegians and Germans are apparently somewhat better off than we are. Still, perhaps this stunning "Debut" Petrushka will help upgrade the accordion from the camp-fire to the concert-hall, from imitation by other instruments to positive exploitation for its own saken

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