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Fabulous Pianistic Address,
This review is from: Louis Lortie Plays Ravel's Complete Works for Solo Piano (Audio CD)
This is beautifully executed, well recorded, musically involving piano playing of the highest order and a safe recommendation for anyone looking for all Ravel's piano music. It was recorded in the Snape Maltings, so the acoustic is realistic if just very slightly resonant. For complete sets of Ravel there are also Bavouzet on MDG, Thibaudet on Decca and Artur Pizarro on two Linn discs. Bavouzet plays a 1901 Steinway which can occasionally sound a little shallow in the bass. Thibaudet sounds like a modern studio recording. Pizarro is recorded in an empty theatre and the rather outsize image sounds bangy when the volume peaks.
Among Ravel's solo piano works, the crown must go to Gaspard de la nuit and Miroirs - two of the greatest works in the 20th-century repertoire for solo piano. Lortie's performance of Gaspard is thrilling, and the devilish final movement - Scarbo - has an audible edge in terms of clarity over close rivals like Martha Argerich. Another very fine Gaspard - both as performance and recording - is currently out of the catalogue. This is Berezovsky, whose combination of virtuosity, musicality and detail is remarkable, not least in a very fast Scarbo.
In the first movement - the sublime Ondine - Berezovsky is just a shade too swift, but unlike many pianists he fully realises the climax of the movement, in which notes repeatedly cascade down the keyboard in the right hand while Ondine the water nymph rises from the depths in the left. Lortie, Thibaudet and Michelangeli (BBC Legends) also build the tension here as Ravel intended, and all four provide a consistently wonderful realisation of the rapid scales and figurations that evoke waves and Ondine's seductive but terrifying laughter. By an audible margin the laurels go to Lortie, whose performance achieves the best balance between poetry and virtuosity - and between the hands. (In many performances the shimmering right-hand figurations all too easily mask the voice of Ondine in the left.)
Michelangeli's Le gibet is perfectly paced and captures every ounce of the haunting, static atmosphere of the middle movement. But Lortie and Argerich also find just the right tempo.
Thibaudet's Scarbo is terrific because he makes the antics of the devilish dwarf so vivid in this astonishingly virtuosic finale. For instance, his repeated notes really sound like teasing knocking, not just a pianistic device.
As to the competition in Gaspard, Aimard is a wonderful interpreter of modern music - as his Messiaen and Ligeti recordings testify - but his Ondine begins to run out of steam just when she should be at her most menacing. As the pianist has technique to spare, it must be what he intended, but musically it is odd. Argerich gets the speed of Ondine just right and a perfect balance between the hands, but the recording is not quite in the top class.
Gavrilov and Ashkenazy are much too closely miked. In the historical category, Casadesus's 1951 recording is still fine - just a little dry and dated. Abbey Simon is even more musical, and his piano sound is superior, but he can just be heard vocalising a la Glenn Gould from time to time. Nevertheless, this is wonderful playing. Mogilevsky senior (his son Alexander also plays) made a speciality of Gaspard and conjures a lovely Ondine, but his piano is a little clattery and Scarbo on the slow side. Both Gieseking's recordings pale by comparison with any of the above. The playing is slipshod, as it is in his much-vaunted Debussy recordings, and he does not for a minute deserve serious consideration. Worse still (worse is, amazingly, possible) is a recording by Arrau, in which an arthritic Ondine who pauses before her every word is followed by Scarbo then Le gibet in the wrong order - ! - all in sound that suggests a pirate recording.
Back to the complete sets. Gramophone declared Lortie's to be "among the finest recordings of piano music currently available". Thibaudet is just as musical and delivers a marvellous Alborada in Miroirs. (Another terrific Alborada - the best I have heard - can be found on a budget EMI twofer of Ravel and Liszt played by Mikhail Rudy.) Bavouzet's is a worthy competitor perhaps not quite in the same class as these two.
Of the historial recordings, Abbey Simon's (allowing for the quiet vocalising) is very rewarding.
There are other complete sets I have not sampled - Tharaud, Pludermacher and Hewitt, to name three. But I will be surprised if any of these displaces Lortie, whose Ravel set is a magnificent achievement, and whose Gaspard is just wonderful.