Ravel was one of the most emotionally complex of all composers. His Basque heritage gave him a special affinity with Spanish colours and rhythms, his acute ability to re-engage sensations and memories from childhood resulted in music of playful innocence and unalloyed purity, and his fascination with all things logical and mechanical was also a profound influence on the way he organized his own musical thinking. He thrived on the discipline imposed by setting himself a unique task with every score, so much so that at times you can almost sense him thinking out loud. It was Stravinsky who once affectionately referred to him as ‘the most perfect of Swiss clockmakers'.
Artur Pizarro clearly recognizes the grand divide in Ravel's solo piano music between those pieces whose technical bravado and textural wizardly obfuscates a certain coolness of creative approach (Gaspard de la nuit, Miroirs, etc on Volume 1, reviewed in March 2007) and those pieces featured here whose apparently cool and meticulous surfaces disguise musical worlds of exquisite warmth and charm. Pizarro reminds us that when Ravel allowed the mask to slip, his music became an outlet for a tantalizing sensuality quite without parallel in the music of his time.
Pizarro opens this magical recital with two of Ravel's most heart-warming miniatures, the Prélude and Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn, which between them embrace some of Ravel's most poignant harmonies. This is music that should seduce simply by the sound it makes and Pizarro's supple, affectionate, detailed yet gracefully natural performances get right to the heart of the matter.
Typical of Ravel's meticulous craftsmanship is the Sonatine, the first of Ravel's works to be published under a new exclusive contract with the famous Parisian music publishers August and Jacques Durand. The miracle of his achievement here is not so much the music itself, which is among the most urbane and charming he ever composed, but the way he opens with a Classical-style 'Allegro', continues with a neo-Baroque minuet and then rounds the work off with a toccata in the manner of Debussy's recent Pour le piano as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Some players approach this music with a neo-Classical restraint and touch, yet Pizarro gently cossets this enchanting score in a haze of half-lit colours and subtly pedalled textures that reveal a warm heart beating beneath the music's thin veneer of archaism.
The Valses nobles et sentimentales is headed on the original score by the disarming inscription, ‘le plaisir delicieux et toujours nouveau d'une occupation inutil' (‘the delightful and always new pleasure of a useless occupation'), and Pizarro captures its enticing world of knowing innocence to perfection, suggesting darker undercurrents behind the more extrovert numbers, while at the same time ensuring that the quieter episodes never lose their elusive liquidity. He proves no less compelling in the two pastiches—the affectionate Borodin portrait makes one positively ache to hear Pizarro in the great Russian's Petite Suite.
The greatest challenge here is Le tombeau de Couperin, and here again Pizarro proves equal to the music's coruscating demands, imparting a seductive warmth to the 'Fugue' (always a tricky movement) and a hypnotically light-as-air quality to the 'Prélude'. Some Ravel aficionados might hanker after a more authentically Gallic self-restraint in the manner of the inimitable Monique Haas, but for those who value above all the intoxicating allure of these treasurable pieces, Pizarro has no rivals.