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This Goes Right to the Top,
This review is from: Works By Ravel, Debussy & Massenet (Audio CD)
Suddenly in the last few years there have been three French pianists who have burst upon the scene: Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Alexandre Tharaud, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. And I collect the recordings of all three without fail. Bavouzet came into my view with his extraordinary recordings of the complete solo works of Debussy Debussy: Complete Works For Piano, Vol. 3, Debussy: Complete Works for Piano, Vol. 2, etc. And his magnificent Haydn sonatas Haydn: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1. Now we get a (mostly) concerto CD comprising Debussy's 'Fantaisie' and the two Ravel concertos. For lagniappe we get rarely heard solo pieces by Massenet, pieces I'd never heard before. Charming and old-fashioned in this company and probably not great works, those Massenets, but delightful (and a bit surprising, honestly) to hear. The 'Toccata' is marvelous and I would never have guessed it was by Massenet. Both Roger Nichols, the writer of the fine booklet notes, and Bavouzet, in his note, comment on the similarity between Massenet's Toccata and that in Ravel's 'Tombeau de Couperin.' The 'Valse folle' is a whirlwind which sounds a good twenty years more modern than anything of Massenet's I've ever heard.
But the main dishes in this French repast are the Debussy and Ravel. The Debussy 'Fantaisie' is not often played in concert in my experience and it doesn't sound entirely like the Debussy we all know and love, largely because it is a very early work. There are Debussyan fingerprints, of course, like whole-tone passages and quirky harmonic movement, but the work itself often sounds like quasi-Fauré (not that there's anything wrong with that). Still, Bavouzet and his colleagues -- Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic -- give a performance that makes the best possible case for it. The only other recording I have of the Fantaisie is the old one by Walter Gieseking which is fine but in ancient sound. I've not heard the one by Zoltan Kocsis, but I can imagine that it is pretty good. Debussy: Solo Piano Music; Fantaisie; Ravel: Piano Concertos
Ah, but the Ravel concertos are among the very best written in the twentieth century. The G Major Concerto has one recording that stands above all the rest: Michelangeli Ravel: Piano Concerto in G; Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 4. But Bavouzet comes awfully close. He plays the gorgeous second movement with great beauty of tone at the same time that he plays that long aching, arching opening melody with restraint, just as I imagine Ravel wanted. The third movement is extremely fast, jazzy, exhilarating. The BBC Symphony's bassoonist, amazingly, keeps up with Bavouzet. The only complaint is that the whip is anemic-sounding.
The Left Hand Concerto ascends from that froggy depth with which it begins and becomes a jazzy struggle of the best kind, an entirely muscular performance that does not skimp on the poetry. This is possibly the best recording of it I've heard, although I continue to love the one by Zimerman/Boulez Ravel: The Piano Concertos; Valses nobles et sentimentales.