on 5 November 2010
Hallelujah! Put out the fatted calf! At last a thoroughly recommendable set of the Ravel Piano Concertos on SACD.
When reviewing the (extremely) sub-par efforts of Roget on Oehms, I commented that we had to retrieve our vinyl and - even - RBCD to hear these works performed well. But we can now safely return these to the shelves.
Bavouzet, the BBCSO and Tortelier are clearly of one mind in these performances. Bavouzet's playing is refined, sophisticated and just has precisely the right degree of distanced Gallic passion. The pieces flow and are structured immaculately. In short, these are thoroughly engaging, exciting and idiomatic performances.
And the fill-ups? The Massenet solo piano pieces are tuneful, interesting and pleasant miniatures. However, the Debussy Fantasie which opens the disc is - frankly - inconsequential and eminently unmemorable IMO.
The sound quality is superb throughout - with one small proviso I will come to in a minute. The piano tone is liquid, focussed and refined. The whole recording is superbly crystalline and transparent, in the best Chandos manner. As a result, every strand of the delicate orchestration in these pieces is beautifully revealed.
Now the small proviso. The piano is nicely set in a mid-hall perspective. However, I then find the orchestra too close- in other words, the piano and orchestra are a tad too close together; I would have preferred greater distancing of the latter, in normal Chandos house style! That would also have produced more hall sound.
But let's not quibble over minutiae. Bottom line, this is a fine and wholly recommendable disc.
on 8 January 2012
It seems difficult to find a masterpiece that gets as many disappointing performances as the Ravel G Major Concerto. The first two movements pose serious interpretative problems. In the first movements, these have to do with the tempo relations between the Allegramente main theme and the Meno vivo secondary sections. Meno vivo certainly means slower than the basic tempo, but how much so? Many pianists cannot resist the temptation to slam on the breaks and prepare for a show of hyper-sensitive pianism, thereby destroying both the continuity and the dry humour of the piece. In the Adagio, there is basically just one tempo, and it is certainly quite slow (`Assez lent') but not extremely so, - the piece should not sound unduly solemn or pathetic. Ravel's models here were Mozart and Saint-Saëns, not Bruckner or Tchaikovsky.
Marguerite Long's 1932 recording with the composer conducting clearly demonstrates how these pieces should be done, but that recording really sounds its age. From the stereo era, there used to be three really good recordings: the volatile, exuberant François with Cluytens (EMI), the incomparable Monique Haas with Paul Paray (DG) and as an outsider, the intensely poetic Moravec (Supraphone), endearingly accompanied by the characterful but not wholly idiomatic Prague Philharmonia under Belohlavek.
Bavouzet now joins this trio; to my ears, he finishes in second place just behind Haas. In the booklet notes, Bavouzet writes that he and Tortelier were both pupils of the great Ravelian Pierre Sancan, and they certainly know how to pace the music - in both movements, they are just seconds slower than Long or Haas. I do have some reservations, however, concerning the orchestral playing. It is no secret that the BBC Philharmonic does not have the most powerful bass section in the world (no complaints about the really prominent side drum, though!). More disconcertingly, the playing in general, while technically very accomplished, sounds just a shade plain and anonymous at times. The cor anglais solo from the Adagio provides a good case in point: the British player is certainly technically better than his French colleague from 1965 on the Haas recording, but sounds a bit detached while the quavering, reedy French cor anglais breaks your heart. Roughly similar observations apply to the reading of the Concerto for the Left Hand, and if that means that these recordings are not quite perfect, these reservations do not seem serious enough to withhold a fifth star, especially since Bavouzet turns out to be one of the very few pianists who can really make you love Debussy's atmospheric but rhapsodic Fantaisie. The Massenet encores are lightweight but delightfully done. All in all, this is clearly the best modern recording of the Ravel Concertos, and can be confidently recommended - but true perfection remains elusive in these works.