, August 2006
The highlight on the first disc is the very fine account of that maverick masterpiece, the Piano Concerto for Left Hand. The pianist is the young Georgian Elissa Virsaladze, who plays with authority and fire, and is well supported by the St.Petersburg Philharmonic under Alekseev. The quite slow tempi the performers adopt allow the jazz rhythms to register, while the melancholy, even tragic, undertow of the work comes across powerfully, too. As do the extraordinary touches in the orchestration, e.g. the long contrabassoon solo at the very beginning as the work climbs from Stygian depths.
CD2 begins with the whole of the second Daphnis et Chloë suite (complete with wordless chorus), then more boxy piano for Jeux d'eau - what a pity, because Thiollier plays it quite beautifully, and I admit I forgot about the recording's shortcomings as the piece unfolded. One of my favourite movements of all time, the gorgeous Assez vif from the string quartet follows, in a vivacious performance by the Ad Libitum Quartet.
Quite naturally, much the larger part of the music here is instrumental, as that is what we chiefly associate with Ravel. But the two songs, one on each disc, remind us what vocal riches he left, too. On Disc 1, the rich alto of Claire Brua gives us one of the delicious Chansons espagnoles, while on Disc 2, baritone Laurent Naouri sings one of the songs from the cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. Naouri has a very light, young voice, not yet fully settled, though he is extremely sensitive in his projection of the text.
The last two tracks seem to epitomise the extremes of Ravel's aesthetic. The slow movement of the G major Piano Concerto is an avowed tribute to Mozart, and as such is one of the most rarefied of 20th century concerto movements. And then what? Why, of course, that old pot-boiler Boléro. Well, every great man has his weak spot! We mustn't forget, though, that Boléro was an experiment, and a daring one at that, aimed at finding out how far repetition as a musical device could be pushed. Well, Minimalism has taught us that it's possible (if not advisable) to go much further than Ravel thought possible, hasn't it?
Listening to these CDs, I was almost overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and variety of Ravel's output; one should never lose sensitivity to that. OK, he may not be as 'great' or 'major' a composer as Debussy or Stravinsky. But, for this listener anyway, he never loses that capacity to stun with the sheer gorgeousness of the music his imagination and talent enabled him to create. For that reason alone, he is a World Cup winner amongst French composers.