Ravel Review Roundup


The promo mailings have recently yielded a new crop of Ravel recordings. None displace my favorites, but all are interesting and worth discussing.

There can be a tendency when labels are marketing their younger artists as sex symbols to discount their talents, but that would be a mistake in Yuja Wang's case. Everything I have heard by her, both on DG and in Youtube videos, has been full of verve and intelligence. She does not disappoint here, playing the concertos with a combination of passion and precision. I am, unfortunately, less impressed with the orchestra and conductor (the unsigned booklet notes tell us they are recording all of Ravel's orchestral music). The sensuous textures of Ravel's expert orchestrations are underplayed, and rhythms and dynamic gradations are a tad foursquare. For that reason, I'm glad that the "filler" here is a solo piece, which Wang plays with enthralling poetry. I will still listen to the concertos for Wang's sterling contributions, but for a fully involved orchestra and conductor, find pianist Aldo Ciccolini's set with the Orchestre de Paris led by Jean Martinon (originally on Angel, later EMI Classics, available on one CD or in a box of Martinon's Debussy and Ravel orchestral music), where the mysterious opening of the Concerto for the Left Hand gently blooms from nothingness to a gauzy aura that is quintessentially Impressionist.

Alpers's set of Ravel's solo piano music (yeah, its actual title lacks that important specificity) is a little more complete than any of the other three in my collection thanks to the inclusion of the early "Sérénade grotesque" (written when he was 18) and the circa 1904 Menuet in C-sharp minor, written on the back of a composition exercise when he was teaching Maurice Delage. I assume it is a recent discovery. If you're curious, the score is here. The Menuet is a charming if brief piece, with surprisingly slippery harmonies. "Sérénade grotesque" lives up to its name with some rude sonorities. However, Alpers doesn't include the 1896 suite La parade, a surprising omission at this point even if decades ago it wasn't included.

Of course, it is not these pieces by which a Ravel set lives or dies. Most important, or at least most focused on in forming a judgment, are the suites: Miroirs (Mirrors), Gaspard de la nuit, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, and Le Tombeau de Couperin. In particular, to size up a pianist's technique, go straight to "Scarbo," the deliberately difficult culmination of Gaspard, and see if he or she plays it up to speed (check), yet with clarity (check) and no bloopers (check) while also conveying its eerie mood (check) and delivering it all in burnished tone (check). Yup, Alpers is the real deal. The other tests, for me, are the retro-Baroque suite Le Tombeau de Couperin, which mercilessly leaves the pianist nowhere to hide deficiencies of tone or phrasing in its crystalline lines and yet must also be charming, and the highly popular "Pavane pour une Infante défunte" (Pavane for a Dead Princess), which must be played beautifully without becoming syrupy. Again, Alpers plays these quite satisfactorily; I like his legato in the Pavane, and he delivers "Scarbo" with thrilling alacrity. He doesn't stint on the spooky atmospheres of the two earlier movements, either. And, judging by big pieces notwithstanding, he also retains all his attributes and intense focus in the better-known smaller works.

What of the competition? I've never been entirely convinced by Robert Casadesus's Sony set; his playing is sometimes rhythmically stiff; on the other hand, he had Ravel's seal of approval. Walter Gieseking's traversal on EMI is certainly a must-have, though at times he seems a bit uninvolved; sonics, alas, are mono and boxy (if only he'd been an RCA artist -- these might have even been in stereo if he had). A recent set I need to acquire is Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's on MDG, as his later work on Chandos has greatly impressed me. My favorite set remains Abbey Simon's for Vox, a bargain to boot. You'd never guess from the brilliant sound that Vox is a budget label, and Simon's artistry is dazzling and, for pianists, envy-provoking. He plays with clarity that doesn't sacrifice tone or legato phrasing, is always profoundly involved in the music, and has more than enough dexterity to handle both the technical hurdles of "Scarbo" and the highly exposed textures of Le Tombeau de Couperin.

Due to my satisfaction with Simon's set, I have been remiss in keeping up with more recent sets. I would love to hear Stephen Osborne's set on Hyperion, but like Bavouzet's, it's not on Rdio.com, my streaming platform of choice (the one that paid decent royalty rates; alas, it's just been gobbled up by Rhapsody and will probably wither away). A few superficial judgments: I abandoned streaming Alexandre Tharaud's (Harmonia Mundi) when I heard him rush the Prelude of Tombeau, in the process blurring its delicate textures. Louis Lortie (Chandos) phrases inelegantly. Anne Queffélec's Erato set sounds promising. Jean-Yves Thibaudet is uneven.

Alpers also gets some points with his fillers: six short Ravel tribute pieces by Alfredo Casella, Arthur Honegger, Kendall Briggs, Marcus Aydintan, Anton Plate, and Benedict Mason. None of them are on the level of Ravel's work, granted, but that's kind of an unfair standard, and all of them are interesting, especially Mason's "Galoches en d'aoút." So, I can't say for sure that if you want a recent complete solo piano Ravel set that Alpers's is the top recommendation, but I was not at all disappointed by it, and between the attractive fillers and a reasonable $19 price (judging by arkivmusic.com, my favorite classical e-commerce site) for two CDs.

Grante's single disc selection is for collectors interested in hearing a very different interpretive approach. He applies his virtuoso technique to a more Romantic, Lisztian/Chopinesque way of playing these pieces. This is most disconcerting in the Pavane: his detached phrasing at its beginning (especially the left hand, but even the melody) is, to put it mildly, an eccentric choice; I get that he's presumably trying to put some variety into a fairly repetitive piece, but it's too much of a shock. (Even later on, he plays with less legato than the melody begs for.) He varies the pianistic colors from section to section with such mastery that that would have sufficed for characterizing each verse (so to speak). In the other pieces, after originally feeling he doesn't quite connect with their poetry, I eventually came around to his approach, which is subtle and highly piano-focused. It still doesn't sound like Ravel playing as we are used to hearing it, but it's an interesting alternative. One last complaint: in "Scarbo," where Grante's technical skills get to shine -- he makes it sound easy -- unfortunately the piano is not in tune in its upper register (at, for instance, 1:50), which is distracting to say the least. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Earlier this year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music FestivalThe CD of the soundtrack  was releaseby MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure) on August 7.