RAVEL Complete Works for Solo Piano
Bertrand Chamayou from Toulouse has been called a prince of pianists, a hyperbolic claim, some might argue, for a musician still in his early thirties. Yet his galvanic Liszt E flat Concerto was the first using historical instruments (Ambroisie, 11/12), his Années de pèlerinage is among a handful of the finest on record (Naïve, 3/12), and both were preceded in 2006 by a stunning set of Transcendental Etudes (Vogue). His disc of Mendelssohn’s solo music is the most compelling in recent memory (Naïve, 10/08), while recordings of Schubert (Erato, 5/14) and Franck (Naïve, 9/10) are as distinctive as his collaboration with cellist Sol Gabetta in Chopin (Sony Clasical, 6/15). Up until now, however, Chamayou has recorded little of those mainstays of French pianists, Ravel and Debussy. I, for one, had no idea what was in store.
Here, in some of the 20th century’s most familiar and beloved piano music, are revelatory performances of breathtaking beauty and incomparable power. Most striking, perhaps, is their unforced naturalness. Never waylaid by wealth of detail and opulent texture, Ravel’s harmonic movement is given singularity of purpose. Everything flows with the inevitability of speech, precisely articulated, direct and unmistakably sincere. Pedal is used with the utmost tact, enveloping appropriate passages in a shimmering aura that serves to heighten contour and colour. At the root of each piece is infallible rhythm, from whence branch and flower lilting pulses and a living, breathing rubato.
The large sets, Miroirs, Valses nobles et sentimentales, Gaspard de la nuit and Le tombeau de Couperin, dazzle in their variety and originality of concept and execution. They can also be unsettling. In Miroirs, to have been tossed about on waves in the brilliant sunlight and, still damp with ocean spray, to encounter a serenade by a jester whom you thought you knew but who turns out to be someone else entirely, only to end up in a misty valley with sound of distant bells emanating from seemingly every direction, is disconcerting. It’s also viscerally thrilling. In the Valses, the kinaesthetic intoxication of the ball is palpable, until you begin to feel that it’s all been a dream. The water pieces, Jeux d’eau, ‘Ondine’ and ‘Une barque sur l’océan’, are imbued with character as distinct from one another as the pools of Caillebotte, the ponds of Monet or the seas of Turner. This is accomplished with that calibre of virtuosity that leaves one unaware of anything but the music. The canonic works are rounded out by Siloti’s effective transcription of ‘Kaddisch’ from the Two Hebrew Melodies (1914) and Alfredo Casella’s A la manière de Ravel.
Superlative Ravel seems almost in abundance these days – think Bavouzet, Thibaudet, Queffélec or Lortie. But for my ears, Chamayou brings everything home in a way that is deeply personal, vivid, unique. No one who loves French music or exquisite piano-playing will want to miss this.