Ravel (The) Complete Solo Piano Works
Offering some acute and warm-hearted after-thoughts, Steven Osborne complements Roger Nichols’s accompanying essay, confessing to a lifelong love of Ravel. And clearly it was time to extend his single Ravel CD (Musical Heritage) to celebrate his triumph in the Naumburg Competition and give us a most stylish and distinguished completion. A pianist inclined to leave well alone, he would surely have delighted a composer notoriously on the qui vive for all possible exaggeration or lapses of taste. As he so eloquently puts it, in “Ondine” from Gaspard it is as if “the laws of physics are being subtly contravened – the piano should not be able to hang in the air like this”.
And so it is in his performance, which is technically immaculate (the opening “‘shimmer of harmony” a far cry from Lazar Berman’s confused shake on his Brilliant Classics recording) and gently seductive before turning on a more sinister pressure. “Le gibet” is wonderfully desolate and static (though with individual touches of vehemence and assertion) and in “Scarbo” there is a reminder that beneath all that skittering madness lies music in rapid three-time; truly Ravel’s “Mephisto Waltz”. “Alborada” from Miroirs is another striking success, where a trickster’s ribaldry and high jinks explode into violence, and in La valse (suitably arranged and “orchestrated”), Osborne spins his dancers towards a visceral and devastating oblivion.
An occasional diffidence elsewhere (the Forlane from “Le tombeau de Couperin” could surely be more piquant and characterful) and a laissez-faire approach to several of the shorter works (try Pascal Rogé – Decca, 10/94 – for a more lilting and affectionate A la maniere de Borodine) is countered by a vivacious and refined view of Valses nobles et sentimentales, including a third waltz as léger as you could wish. My top recommendation for Ravel’s piano music remains Thibaudet (see my Gramophone Collection, 8/08) but this beautifully recorded and presented issue rides high in a highly competitive market.