Ravel Solo Piano Works

Author: 
Bryce Morrison

Ravel Solo Piano Works

  • Sérénade grotesque
  • Menuet antique
  • Pavane pour une infante défunte
  • Jeux d'eau
  • Sonatine for Piano
  • Miroirs
  • Gaspard de la nuit
  • Menuet sur le nom de Haydn
  • (8) Valses nobles et sentimentales
  • Prélude
  • A la manière de Borodine
  • A la manière de Chabrier
  • (Le) Tombeau de Couperin

This two-disc set of Ravel's complete piano music is an imaginative and pianistic tour de force sumptuously presented and recorded. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the latest star in Decca's pianistic firmament, possesses a flashing wit and dexterity yet never trespasses beyond received poetic tact or wisdom; a secret surely shared by only the finest Ravelians. Clearly, he scorns heavily personalized attitudes and his nonchalance or understatement (something inseparable from Gallic genius, from Faure and Debussy as well as Ravel) combines with razor-sharp reflexes and a scrupulously sensitive regard for detail. His Miroirs suggest an eerie evanescence, kaleidoscopic changes of colour and direction as well as an inimitable mix of indolence and hyperactivity. His rhythmic attack in ''Alborada'' is brilliantly incisive and a far cry from other more blustering, outwardly virtuosic alternatives. In the ''Fugue'' from Le tombeau de Couperin he finds a wistful undertow beneath the music's sharply etched, enigmatic exterior and in the central moins vif from the ''Rigaudon'' his unusually perky and stylized approach modulates into warmth and colour at the direction sourdine. Again, just as you are inclined to accuse him of dryness in the Pavane, he cunningly alters course and in the final magical elaboration of the theme his playing positively glows with affection.
The start of Jeux d'eau is less insinuating or tres doux than from Louis Lortie in his justly celebrated Chandos set (issued on two separate discs), but in the two ascents marked rapide his dizzying accelerations affect one like sudden rushes of blood to the head, while his final pages rise and fall with a subdued glitter that puts one in mind of Baudelaire's words, ''luxe, calme et volupte''. The final chord, too, is allowed to resonate seemingly indefinitely; almost as if Thibaudet were loath to leave Ravel's enchanted world.
We are hardly short of outstanding Gaspards yet Thibaudet's is surely as vital and light-fingered as any. ''Le gibet'' is classically poised and mesmeric, allowing the listener his own imaginative space, while ''Scarbo'' is both macabre and precise. Ppp tres fondue et bien egal de sonorite indicates Ravel, and Thibaudet responds with a sonority like the sudden cracking of twigs, turning all possible scherzando playfulness into demonic menace. The Valses nobles et sentimentales are as stylish as any on record and if you follow, say, the Serenade grotesque (memorably taut and tres rude in this reading) with the little A minor Prelude you will capture something of Thibaudet's range, his ability to switch from Hispanic fire and languor to quietly intense speculation. An uncharacteristic lack of engagement in the Sonatine (he has an oddly literal way with the staccato markings in the ''Mouvement de Menuet'') and an occasional tendency to allow detail to obscure continuity (in the ''Toccata'' from Le tombeau de Couperin, for example) are marginal failings in this superb set, which sensibly surpasses Lortie's (the preferred version until now), both in performance and recording.
No Ravel piano collection would be complete without a Gaspard from Argerich (DG, 12/87), Pogorelich (DG, 11/84), Gavrilov (EMI, 4/88), Ashkenazy (Decca, 6/85) and Nojima (Reference, 10/90) and, dividing the issue still further, the ''Prelude'' and ''Toccata'' from Le tombeau de Couperin from Casadesus (Sony Classical) and Gilels (Olympia, 11/88) respectively. Gilels's deleted New York Carnegie Hall recital performances of Jeux d'eau and the Pavane on RCA are also instances of a great Russian pianist's sympathy for the French idiom. All these, together with Thibaudet's discs, represent the creme de la creme.'

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