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Hyperion Records

CDA67731/2 - Ravel: The Complete Solo Piano Music
Nympheas (1908) by Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Private Collection / Photo © Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67731/2

Recording details: September 2010
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: March 2011
DISCID: BC11C60C 5B0FB717
Total duration: 142 minutes 36 seconds

BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE 'DISC OF THE MONTH'
GRAMOPHONE CRITICS' CHOICE 2011 PIZZICATO 'SUPERSONIC' AWARD

'The music is as ravishing as ever, but what intelligence, clarity and deftly lit atmosphere there is in the playing of it!' (Gramophone)

'Throughout, Osborne repeatedly demonstrates not merely that these performances stand with the best, but also that comparisons are superfluous in the face of such a compelling vision … his sustaining of the Epilogue is magical, as if not wishing to relinquish the spell of this recital. It is over all too soon' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Steven Osborne, ever a poised, technically impeccable virtuoso, combines clarity with heart. All a shimmering pleasure' (The Observer)

'Steven Osborne brings his masterly interpretative acumen to bear with a touch and temperament that combine eloquence and deftness. Landmark works are set alongside various less frequently heard miniatures in performances that live and breathe Ravel’s distinctive world of sound, radiating luminous patterns and scintillating colour' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Such is the high quality, and the small quantity, of Ravel's keyboard music, that there is phenomenal competition in this repertoire from the likes of Gieseking, Pizarro, Lortie, Thibaudet and many others, but Osborne's accounts can hold their own with any of these. His technical command is truly staggering … very highly recommended: even among the greatest of competition, Osborne may have set a new benchmark' (International Record Review)

'[Osborne's] Ravel strikes me as finer yet than his Debussy. He has devised the most compelling sequence of works, making two quite distinct and complementary programmes of this highly diversified but relatively small oeuvre … he brings transcendental Lisztian virtuosity and an astonishing palette of sonorities to the fiendish Gaspard pieces' (The Sunday Times)

'Osborne gauges the iridescent colours of Miroirs faultlessly and turns Gaspard de la nuit into a quasi-orchestral fantasy. This is the finest Ravel anthology of the CD era' (Financial Times)

'These supreme interpretations of Ravel's piano music by Steven Osborne lead me to say something that's been in my mind for a decade. It first struck me when I heard his definitive recording of Messiaen's Vingt Regards, and popped up again in subsequent recordings, especially his awesome disc of Beethoven Piano Sonatas. But absolute confirmation arrived with this stupendous double CD with gob-smacking performances of Gaspard de la nuit and Miroirs, and a fast, fleet performance of the Sonatine. Steven Osborne is one of just a few pianists recognisable by his sound' (The Herald)

'[Osborne's] awe-inspiring technical command in the Gaspard gives even Michelangeli a run for his money, and I have yet to hear a more sovereign performance of the half-hour Miroirs from any living pianists. Osborne is also near-perfect in the Valses nobles et sentimentales and his La valse is jaw dropping' (Pianist)

'This is a Ravel set to sit with those of Thibaudet and Bavouzet … unhesitatingly recommended' (International Piano)

The Complete Solo Piano Music
CD1
Ondine  [6'22]
Le gibet  [7'25]
Scarbo  [9'27]
Modéré  [4'10]
Animé  [3'41]
Noctuelles  [4'49]
Oiseaux tristes  [4'33]
CD2
Prélude  [2'54]
Fugue  [3'25]
Forlane  [5'51]
Rigaudon  [3'01]
Menuet  [4'39]
Toccata  [3'49]
Assez lent  [2'11]
Modéré  [1'22]
Assez animé  [1'01]
Presque lent  [1'17]
Vif  [0'37]
Moins vif  [2'29]
Epilogue: Lent  [4'49]

New releases of Steven Osborne’s best-selling discs have become some of the most eagerly-awaited events in the pianophile diary. This most delicate and subtle of musicians also displays a pyrotechnical deployment of digital acrobatics, mesmerising colour control and breathtaking articulation. All these qualities are visible in this two-disc set of some of the most important piano music of the early twentieth century. Ravel’s works have been central, too, to Steven Osborne’s performing repertoire throughout his career, making this set a perfect marriage of composer and performer.


Other recommended albums
'Chopin: Ballades & Sonata No 3' (CDH55182)
Chopin: Ballades & Sonata No 3
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55182  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
'Chopin: Piano Concertos' (CDH55180)
Chopin: Piano Concertos
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55180  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  

From adolescence onwards, Ravel exhibited many of the characteristics of the Baudelairean dandy. Not only was he always beautifully turned out, but he aimed for a position ‘above the combat’ (except when it was of his own making) and enjoyed surprising others while being himself immune to surprise. Alfred Cortot, a fellow student at the Paris Conservatoire in the 1890s, remembered him as ‘a deliberately sarcastic, argumentative and aloof young man, who used to read Mallarmé and visit Erik Satie’.

It followed therefore that any piano music he wrote would at least attempt originality, and that he would set a high prize on never repeating himself. In this enterprise he was perhaps helped by the fact that he was never a virtuoso pianist. Here was another of his original features. The other French composers for piano of the period—Bizet, Alkan, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Chabrier, Debussy, Poulenc—were all high-class pianists, even if Chabrier’s and Poulenc’s pedalling was a bit too generous for those of more refined tastes. Ravel, by contrast, was never more than a mediocre keyboard player, with a rather thin, hard tone. On his 1928 US tour, he was accused of playing ‘even worse that Johannes Brahms did in his declining years, and Brahms set a mark for all bad pianists to shoot at’. But a possible benefit was that Ravel avoided the trap that Poulenc was all too aware of in his own piano music: that the mind tended to follow the fingers along well-trodden tracks. Ravel’s piano music has its own feel, and often not a comfortable one.

His earliest piano composition to survive is entitled Sérénade on the manuscript, from which one might assume that it was an easy-going piece suitable for performance by young ladies in the salons. However, in 1928 Ravel expanded the title to Sérénade grotesque, which fits the music much better, full as it is of surprises, both rhythmic and harmonic, with a plethora of dry arpeggiated chords marked pizzicatissimo. The composer in retrospect felt it was too much influenced by Chabrier (quite possibly by his Bourrée fantasque) and it was not published until after his death. Chabrier also lies behind the central section of the Menuet antique of 1895, the first of Ravel’s works to be published (in 1898). The piece’s ‘antiquity’ comes out in the flattened leading notes of cadences. Altogether more modern, and Ravelian, are the harmonic scrunches, beginning with the very first chord, that lend impetus to the imitative lines which follow. Rhythmically too, Ravel plays games with the minuet form, often grouping his phrases in twos rather than threes.

The first public performance of the Menuet was given on 18 April 1898 by a pianist and friend who was to prove an invaluable champion of Ravel’s music for most of the next decade. Ricardo Viñes, a Spaniard who had become a friend of Ravel at the Conservatoire, was a brilliant pianist with an exceptional range of keyboard colours (according to one acquaintance, ‘an express bar of delights’). He premiered the composer’s next piece, the Pavane pour une infante défunte, on 5 April 1902, by which time Ravel was coming to general notice as a promising talent. The Pavane is probably the earliest of his pieces that ‘everybody knows’. But its success was always a little galling for Ravel, as he came to recognize its shortcomings and (again) its dependence on Chabrier. He was also irritated by pianists who played it too slowly, prompting him on one occasion to remark that it was the princess that was defunct, not the pavane. On the other hand, ‘one mustn’t turn it into a drama’. The answer perhaps lies in his suggestion that ‘at the same time as making the accompaniment secondary to the tune, you must insist on the latter’s slightly mechanical aspect’. Not for the last time, a Ravel piece turns out to be aesthetically more complex than it seems.

Another area in which Ravel marked himself out from most of his colleagues was in his refusal to engage with Wagner—a great composer certainly, but dangerous as a model. Instead, he turned to Liszt, whom he regarded for one thing as a better orchestrator and, for another, as a piano composer on whom he could build. His Jeux d’eau, finished in November 1901 and premiered by Viñes on 5 April the following year, obviously invites comparison with Liszt’s Les jeux d’eaux à la villa d’Este, and Ravel, asked how it should be played, answered ‘like Liszt, of course’. The epigraph, ‘Dieu fluvial riant de l’eau qui le chatouille’ (River god laughing at the water that tickles him), is taken from a poem by Henri de Régnier, who inscribed it on the earliest autograph of the piece: in fact the ‘Dieu’ of the quotation refers to the goddess Latona sitting naked on the back of a tortoise, as depicted on a fountain at Versailles. When the young pianist Henriette Faure played it to Ravel after the First World War, he complained: ‘Your fountains are sad ones.’ She repeated it, ‘thinking happy thoughts, so as to turn what I had previously thought was a meditation into a sparkling divertissement’. Ravel was content … and was quick to realize that he had found a new style of piano writing, to the point that he questioned the primacy in this area of Debussy, ‘who at the beginning of 1902 … had written only the three pieces Pour le piano [which], from the purely pianistic point of view, say nothing really new’.

From time to time Ravel took on private composition pupils, one of the earliest of whom was Maurice Delage, who had been turned on to music in 1902 by Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. In 1904, on the back of one of Delage’s exercises, Ravel penned a little Menuet in C sharp minor, whether for his own amusement or Delage’s instruction, we don’t know. But this tiny piece shows as clearly as any other Ravel’s extraordinary ability to wring emotion out of the least imposing material; and how naturally the music rises to a climax and then falls to its final cadence. As a teacher, he was severe on what he called ‘babillage’ (prattling or waffling), and was no less vigilant on his own behalf.

Also in 1904, he entered an international competition for the first movement of a Sonatine for piano, sponsored by an Anglo-French magazine, the Weekly Critical Review. But with bankruptcy looming, the competition was cancelled and Ravel was left as the sole entrant. Curiously, Ravel’s movement was longer than the specified 75 bars—usually he stuck to the rules of any game he chose to play. Then he decided to complete the Sonatine, and two other movements were finished by August 1905. At the first Paris performance given by Gabriel Grovlez on 31 March 1906, one critic voiced what was to become a perennial complaint about Ravel’s music, that it was well written and charming, but lacking in emotion. Against this, the opening interval of a descending fourth grew to be a ubiquitous Ravel fingerprint—at the end of his opera L’enfant et les sortilèges it is set to the word ‘maman’, according to many of Ravel’s friends the only person he ever truly loved. The emotion is there, but has to be sought. Only with the finale does sheer technique obtrude, Ravel instructing that it be played ‘without prudence or mercy’.

The two sets of pieces he wrote next both deliberately break out from formal confines, according to his desire to write music ‘which would seem to have been torn out of a sketchbook’. In the five pieces entitled Miroirs, written in 1905, Ravel’s compositional technique is still at work, but less patently. The fast appoggiaturas in ‘Noctuelles’ and the sudden spurts of crescendo paint a picture of night moths flitting in the darkness, while the birds of ‘Oiseaux tristes’ utter their short–long call ‘in a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer’. With ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ we emerge into the daylight. Here is a water piece that escapes the constraints of Jeux d’eau, or at least gives the impression of doing so, riding on a surge of arpeggios from start to finish. Ravel explained that the character of the clown (gracioso) in ‘Alborada del gracioso’ was humorous, but with an edge to him—less well meaning than Beaumarchais’s Figaro—and no doubt the drier tone and lighter action of the Erard pianos Ravel favoured would have accentuated the sharpness of the arpeggiated ‘guitar’ chords and repeated notes. ‘La vallée des cloches’ is the only one of the five pieces that reflects a particular reality, the sound of midday bells in Paris. Ravel demanded that each bell should have its own timbre, ‘within a pianissimo which he could, in some mysterious way, produce without it sounding feeble’. When Viñes gave the first performance of the set on 6 January 1906, ‘Alborada’ was encored.

Although Viñes had arrived in Paris in 1887 as a boy knowing no French, he soon learnt large portions of French literature by heart and it was he who introduced Ravel to Aloysius Bertrand’s book of poems Gaspard de la nuit, written between 1832 and 1836 and published in 1842. The poems appealed to Ravel’s love of fairytales and the supernatural, and to his taste for Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre stories. The spirit of Liszt also hovers over Ravel’s three pieces, in the brilliance of the writing and no less in its technical demands. The water nymph Ondine tries to lure the author down to be king in her underwater palace: beauty and danger are wonderfully combined in Ravel’s score, and to this end he asked that Ondine’s theme should not stand out but should be absorbed into the surrounding atmosphere. Likewise in ‘Le gibet’ the bell, ringing for the corpse of the hanged man glowing red in the setting sun, ‘does not dominate, it is, it tolls unwearyingly’. Sad to say, Viñes insisted on livening up the piece, and after the premiere on 9 January 1909 Ravel entrusted him with no more first performances. Scarbo, the malevolent dwarf, here one moment, gone the next, is the master of surprises: ‘How many times have I heard his laughter buzz in the shadows of my alcove, and his fingernails scratching on the silk curtains round my bed!’ Ravel admitted that he had wanted to write a piece more difficult than Balakirev’s Islamey, but that ‘perhaps I let myself get carried away!’

In the summer of 1909 the journalist Jules Ecorcheville asked a number of leading French composers each to write a short piano piece in honour of Haydn, who died on 31 May 1809. The form was left up to them, but they were asked to make use of a five-note motto theme (B–A–D–D–G) representing the name Haydn. This was just the sort of game Ravel enjoyed playing and on 12 September 1909 he wrote to Ecorcheville, ‘Le menuet est confectionné’—the term used by tailors cutting a suit. The motto theme duly appears as above, then backwards and upside down, before two final recto appearances in the treble and, in the concluding bars, in the bass.

No clearer example can be found of Ravel’s determination to avoid repeating himself than his Valses nobles et sentimentales, following on the atmospherics (themselves differentiated) of Gaspard and Ma mère l’oye for piano duet. Here the style, as he said, ‘is simpler and clearer, in which the harmony is harder and the lines of the music are made to show up’. The epigraph at the head of the score, ‘the delightful and ever novel pleasure of a pointless occupation’, suggests that the notes provide their own rationale; but the Henri de Régnier novel from which the quotation comes deals with a young man’s amorous adventures, so, as often with Ravel, there is a tension between strict form and unbounded emotion. In coaching the work, he insisted on the cross rhythms being brought out, and Vlado Perlemuter remembered: ‘I had never seen his eyes so bright—he was so determined on being understood.’ After the seven waltzes, the Epilogue recalls various themes, and here for the first and only time the music is enveloped in a nostalgic haze. Louis Aubert gave the first performance on 9 May 1911 in a concert where the composers’ names were withheld until the end and the audience was asked to guess them. Some guessed Ravel, some Satie and Kodály, and some condemned the Valses as unmusical and cacophonous. Certainly they represented a new Ravel.

Despite their title, the Valses have little to do with Schubert. In general though, Ravel believed that imitation was a fruitful habit, and that originality never showed itself more clearly than in one’s unwitting infidelity to the model. His friend, the composer and pianist Alfredo Casella, had published a group of six pastiches in 1911 and was now planning a second volume, to which he invited Ravel to contribute. The two subjects chosen by Ravel were among his favourite composers. The Borodin pastiche is a waltz that makes characteristic use of chromatic harmonies over ostinato pedals, echoing the ‘Sérénade’ from Borodin’s Petite suite and the scherzo of his Second String Quartet. The Chabrier one is a pastiche of Chabrier making a pastiche of Siebel’s aria ‘Faites-lui mes aveux’ from Gounod’s Faust. Chabrier’s typical cadences and textures (tunes played two octaves apart, upward arpeggio flourishes, a semitonally growling bass) are faithfully reproduced.

Ravel’s career as a student at the Paris Conservatoire was a chequered one, culminating in his notorious failure to win the Prix de Rome in 1905. But his teacher Gabriel Fauré, who became the Conservatoire’s director that year, to some extent made up for this in the years following by inviting him to provide test pieces and sit on various juries. His Prélude, for the ladies’ sight-reading test in 1913, takes a six-note motif from the third of his Mallarmé songs and presents it in modal attire. The winner of the whole competition was Jeanne Leleu who, as one of the pianists who had premiered Ma mère l’oye three years earlier, might be thought to have had an unfair advantage. Ravel was impressed by her performance of this Prélude too, and dedicated it to her.

His last set of piano pieces, the suite Le tombeau de Couperin, acquired memorial significance only after his initial imagining of it as a Suite française: when young friends of his began to die in the trenches, a nostalgic look at eighteenth-century French music in general assumed more personal references. There is therefore very little if anything here that is solemn, let alone lugubrious. After a digitally challenging ‘Prélude’, the ‘Fugue’ (Ravel’s only published example of the form) unfolds with a sense of placid purpose, enlivened by the countersubject’s descending triplet. The ‘Forlane’, written in the summer of 1914, was the first movement to be written, and Ravel prepared for it by transcribing the forlane from Couperin’s fourth Concert royal, keeping the overall structure (ABACADA) but adorning it with some of his most acidic harmonies. After the ‘Rigaudon’, whose implacable outer sections enclose a dreamier central one, the last of his five ‘Menuets’ is a miracle of elegance and poise. The central musette brings with it a hint of the ‘Dies irae’ plainsong and builds into a powerful chromatic climax, before overlapping with insouciant skill beneath the return of the minuet. Ravel described the brilliant final ‘Toccata’ as ‘pure Saint-Saëns’—from him, a compliment to its excellent workmanship. Marguerite Long gave the first performance on 11 April 1919.

Why Ravel stopped composing for the piano at that point, no one knows. Maybe the store of new ideas and techniques simply ran dry. Filling the void more than adequately is the piano solo version of his ballet La valse, completed in 1920. As with Daphnis and Chloé, this piano score was originally intended merely for the rehearsal pianist. But whereas the piano version of Daphnis really forfeits too much of the ballet’s lush orchestral sound, in that of La valse the piano’s essentially percussive nature adds to the score’s rhythmic drive, as the waltz’s seductive strains are wrenched apart and finally smashed. The result is a tour de force, worthy of Liszt at his most Mephistophelian.

Roger Nichols © 2011

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