This double album covers Ravel's complete solo piano works. The pianist is Alexandre Tharaud, a fellow alumnus of the Paris Conservatoire (albeit separated by many decades). For those in a hurry, let us cut to the chase: there is a better album at half the price by Ravel's student Vlado Perlemuter on Nimbus NIM 5005. For a more forward-sounding recording than the Perlemuter, try Jean-Yves Thibaudet (London 433 515-2). If you only want the major works, then Argerich is the one to beat. (The shorter pieces are discussed together at the start of the review, otherwise the ordering of the album is followed.)
A la manière de … Chabrier(1:34)
Menuet en ut dièse(0:54)
Menuet sur le nom de Haydn(1:43)
A la manière de … Borodine(1:32)
Monsieur Tharaud tosses off these tasty little amuse bouches with typical Gallic insouciance. These miniatures have all the hallmarks of Ravel: wit, speed, delicacy and a certain je ne sais quoi. Chabrier is a French Way down upon the soigné river. In the blink of an eye, it ripples sunnily past and is gone. The Prélude gets a rather bland reading. The two menuets are considerably more successful and are given thoughtfully triste readings. Borodine is a bookend to Chabrier with the same rippling merry sunniness.
Gaspard de la nuit(6:31, 6:02, 9:38)
And now for something completely different. Here is a glimpse into the dark side of the Gallic soul. In this three-movement tour de force, the pianist's aim is to strike terror into the heart of the listener. For the first two movements, he succeeds. I, "Ondine" is quick and mysterious, vividly conjuring up the supernatural being of the title. No kindly spirit she, as conveyed by menacing chords in the bass. As with the rest of the piece, this movement is shot through with a deep melancholy. At the end, the music becomes gentle and lulls the listener into a false sense of security before ambushing us with one final heart-stopping flourish.
In II, "Le gibet" (the gallows), ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee, gentle listener. This quiet movement gently evokes the bone-chilling atmosphere of the killing floor. One is inescapably reminded of other evocations of places of execution such as Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and Puccini's Turandot. All have the spirit of the macabre in bucketfuls.
The last movement, "Scarbo", is marred by some most ungallic key pounding at the 4:45 and 8:45 marks. This is too bad, as Tharaud starts off promisingly with some startlingly fast runs. If Ondine's character was ambiguous, there can be no doubt that Scarbo is out-and-out mischievous. He flits about at goblin speed, his evil to perform. One can hardly blame Tharaud for stumbling a bit. To evoke the supernatural, this piece demands superhuman technique. His fault is to be merely human. It may seem extreme to cavil at a couple of fleeting moments, but to be successful, suspension of disbelief must be absolute. Once the veil is pierced, the mood is spoiled and the effect is irretrievably lost.
Valses nobles et sentimentales
(1:13, 2:15, 1:09, 1:07, 1:20, 0:37, 2:38, 3:59)
Tharaud romps through these waltzes, alternately roaring and gentle, sunny and sad. I "Modéré – très franc" is a romper. Not much nobility or sentimentality here. The bass lines really thunder in Harmonia Mundi's excellent recording. II is a sentimental waltz, again with the très triste feeling that is a Ravel hallmark. A delightful sense of childlike simplicity informs both III "Modéré" and IV "Assez animé." V is marked "with an intimate feeling," and Tharaud plays it with a delicate, caressing touch. VI "Vif" is as sharp as the composer might have wished, played with vim and vigor. In VII, "Moins vif" a sense of sadness briefly appears before being eclipsed by ringingly triumphant chords in the bass. The Epilog meanders in Tharaud's reading, never really coming together. The bass lines which rang out so convincingly in I and VII are here merely limp-wristed.
Sonatine(3:42, 2:54, 3:54)
Tharaud gives a most satisfying rendition of the Sonatine. I "Modéré" glitters brilliantly with many an accent and sharp changes in tempo. II "Mouvement de menuet" shimmers with aristocratic elegance and fin de siècle melancholy. Tharaud's touch is sparkling clean. He gives III "Animé" a muscular two-fisted reading, ripping through the runs with crystal clear articulation before bringing the movement to an exultant finish.
Pavane pour une infante défunte(5:35)
Despite dedicating it to the Princesse de Polignac, whose salon he frequented, Ravel always denied that the infant of the title had anything to do with royalty. This is puzzling since, after a particularly lugubrious performance, the composer used the word "princess" in opining that the princess was supposed to be deceased, not the piece. Tharaud comes this close to incurring the wrath of the late composer's spirit. He has chosen to float the notes at us in a soft, smooth stream of tranquility. The feeling of fin de siècle melancholy previously noted is especially intense here. It is a farewell not only to a princess, but also to an era and a whole way of life.
Written when the composer was 21, this previously unpublished work had best been left buried. True, it is evocative of the circus, often sounding like the accompaniment to a silent movie. You can almost see Chaplin tumbling about, but eleven minutes of even the little fellow is enough to engender ennui.
Miroirs(4:36, 3:33, 7:39, 6:18, 5:22)
Under this pianist's fingers the first two movements don't ring my bell. They sound like aimless noodling which they assuredly do not have to (viz Perlemuter). Things perk up with III "Une barque sur l'océan" as wave after wave of notes ripples over us. IV "Alborado del gracioso" is probably more familiar in its orchestrated form (especially on the Reiner-conducted, Layton-engineered LSC 2222). Tharaud indulges in some wayward phrasing and dynamics that mar an otherwise exciting reading. That old bugaboo, key pounding, raises its ugly head again. The bass register is wonderfully, resoundingly resonant in HM's engineering. Alas, things turn boring again in the last movement, "La vallé des cloches."
Tharaud gives this minuet a nice period sound. Obviously Ravel was drawn to the form, given the number of times he used it. Tharaud has a genuine affinity for the minuet--not surprising given that he is an adept of 18th century French music.
Rippling arpeggios give the impression of water dancing in the sunlight. No ordinary dance this. It has complex rising and falling effects. As with so much of Ravel there is a childlike element as of rugrats delighting in a fountain.
More ugly than grotesque, the jerky rhythms remind us of the strange creature in "Scarbo."
Le tombeau de Couperin
(2:57, 3:10, 5:36, 3:01, 4:07, 4:00)
Tharaud is obviously at home with the mood of this composition. In an uneven album, this is one of the high points. I "Prélude," played with rippling abandon, is a delight through and through. II "Fugue" is noble and stately. III "Forlane" is sleek and ultramodern, with jazzy dissonances. IV "Rigaudon" is a joyous romp, full of lightning-fast tempo changes. V "Menuet" has the same fin de siécle sadness as the Pavane. VI the "Toccata" gets a powerhouse reading of tremendous strength and suppleness.
In a word, astonishing. One seldom hears the piano so well recorded. Piano recordings have to steer a hazardous course between the Charybidis of tinniness and the Scylla of tubbiness. With this recording, you get a firm bass foundation without stinting on the upper registers. This release upholds the long and honorable Harmonia Mundi tradition of stunning sound, which has made the label so beloved of audiophiles and helped lead them to much worthy albeit less familiar music. Easily five notes for sonics.
Praise also for HM's cardboard packaging--infinitely more sensible than the crazy jewel box with its brittle, waiting-to-be-snapped hinges. Would that all record companies follow this example.
If you must have a complete cycle, get Vlado Perlemuter on Nimbus NIM 5005. The audience would visibly worry as the eighty-year-old wonder (now, sadly, deceased) wobbled his way to the keyboard, but once there he was transformed into a titan, proving again that music keeps us sprightly and young in spirit. Budget-priced and minimally recorded to boot!
If the somewhat recessed sound of the Nimbus recording is not to your taste, then Jean-Yves Thibaudet on London 433 515-2 offers a more forward recording. (Both are 4.5 note albums.) With records, as with equipment, it takes but a moment to realize who has got it and who has not. It is difficult to understand all this talk of "Golden Ears." Well, if you must have every last little nuance, but in the big picture the sheep separate from the goats pretty obviously. Both Perlemuter and Thibaudet dig deeper than Tharaud, endowing each piece with more character. Tharaud's readings, while technically expert, tend towards cookie-cutter sameness in too many of the pieces, resulting in a highly uneven album of high and low spots. It is the difference between a 3.5 and a 4.5 note record.
For a 5 note (Blue Note Award quality) reading of the great pieces (Gaspard, Sonatine, and Valses), there is the Argentinian fireball Martha Argerich (Deutsche Grammophon LP 2530 540). She coaxes sounds out of the piano in Gaspard that no human should be able to produce. One is left picking one's jaw off the floor. Inexplicably, this recording is deleted. Lobby DG hard to bring it back. And if DG plans never to re-issue this recording, they should make it available as a free download. It is simply too important to be left rotting in the archives.