There are two very different approaches to Ravel's piano music. The first (and, it seems to me, the most popular) is to present the works objectively, impersonally. Pianists like Robert Casadesus and, more recently, Jean-Yves Thibaudet emphasize Ravel's clear-sighted perfectionism and emotional detachment. For them, Ravel is essentially a classicist, an ironist, whose models were Rameau and Couperin. Though I find both Casadesus and Thibaudet a little dry and abstract, there's no denying the formal elegance and dynamism of their performances. In a way, Ravel's music is interpretively foolproof: if you can just play the notes as written, no simple task given the technical difficulties, the results will always be compelling.
But Ravel was also an avid reader of Edgar Allan Poe and admired the Symbolist poets Mallarme and Baudelaire; the fragrant Romanticism and extreme subjectivity of their poems was a deep and abiding influence. In the piano works, Ravel's poetry often expresses itself in the color and sensuality of his imagery: the mysterious, dream-like landscapes of Oiseuxtristes and La Vallee des cloches, for example. Angela Hewitt and Louis Lortie are both very attentive to the Romantic side of Ravel's music. Though they can play the notes handily, they're more interested in evoking mood and atmosphere, and give us a wider range of emotional shading and nuance than the classicists do. Even so, I sometimes miss the brilliance and audacity of Casadesus and Thibaudet.
So the greatest challenge to any potential interpreter of Ravel's piano music is to somehow address the paradoxical elements at the heart of his character: his self-effacing manipulation of traditional forms and his bold individuality. For me, the pianist who most successfully accomplishes this magic trick is the great Walter Gieseking. But Gieseking's performances were done in the 1950's, and the sound, though good for the time, is somewhat compressed and dull. This new set by Stephen Osborne comes as close as anyone ever has to duplicating Gieseking's achievement and it does so in a ravishing state of the art recording.
Osborne, who's given us a justly praised recording of the complete Debussy, fully understands the challenge before him. As he says in the liner notes, "Impressive though Ravel's technical achievements are, the crucial issue is the music's emotional impact." Though Ravel could often be "detached and sarcastic," Osborne finds a wealth of emotion "concealed beneath rather formal veneers," and in the end, he makes Ravel's concerns for "clarity, color, and feeling" very much his own. The result is an interpretive approach that is both technically brilliant and deeply affecting.
In the most demanding pieces here — the Rigaudon
and Toccata from Le tombeau de Couperin and the final movement of the Sonatine,
Osborne is scintillating, boldly assertive. But in the Pavane
for a Dead Princess, he gives us a delicate lyricism with subtle
touches of melancholy. Jeuxd'eau,
the piece that had so decisive an influence on Debussy, is appropriately
luminous and flowing. His Valses nobles
etsentimentales strikes just the right balance between nostalgia and
slapstick. In Gaspard de la nuit,
perhaps the greatest piano work of the twentieth century, and certainly the most
difficult to play, Osborne pays close attention to the imagery, seductive and
menacing in Ondine, bleak and
foreboding in Le gibet. In the "transcendental
jujitsu" of Scarbo, Osborne lets
us hear "the macabre terrors" of the goblin as well as the diabolic extremes of
Liszt and Balakirev. Unlike some pianists, Osborne doesn't just toss off the
shorter pieces. His Serenade grotesque
and the seventy-three second Prelude are both superbly, poetically rendered. I could go on
and on. For me, every performance on this set is a highlight.
Osborne's recent Rachmaninoff disc had just about the best piano sound I've ever heard. If anything, this Ravel is even more revealing, more realistic. There's a wonderful, ear-pleasing balance between the bright, saturated colors at the top and the deep resonant sonorities at the bottom. Producer Andrew Keener's soundstage is both wide and deep. Close your eyes and there's a piano right there in your listening room. As someone who loves this music, I wouldn't want to be without Casadesus, Thibaudet, Hewitt and Lortie (or Gieseking). But if I had to recommend only one recording of the complete piano music, it would be Osborne's.