> Ravel complete piano Gieseking [JW]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Complete Works for Solo Piano

Menuet antique
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Jeux d’eau
Sonatine
Miroirs
Gaspard de la nuit
Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn
Valses nobles et sentimentales
Prélude
A la manière de … Borodine
A la manière de … Chabrier
Le Tombeau de Couperin

Walter Gieseking, piano
Recorded Abbey Road, London 1954
EMI 7243 5 74793 2 5 [2 CDs 117.42]
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For a pianist so associated with the French repertoire it’s somewhat perplexing to find that these Ravel recordings have been out of the domestic catalogue for so long. His Debussy set, currently on EMI CHS 5 658552, has always occupied a central place in the discography – as Bryce Morrison says in his notes Gieseking is to Debussy as Schnabel is to Beethoven or Rubinstein to Chopin - whereas his sovereignty in Ravel seems to have been very slightly eroded over the years. Which again, if true, is a matter for bewilderment. Whilst other pianists may sometimes bring greater clarity of articulation to Ravel or a greater elegance very few can command the myriad exquisite nuances that constantly illuminate the music in the way Gieseking invariably does.

In the Menuet antique, one of Ravel’s first published piano works, we are introduced to his unique brand of piquant antiquarianism, a trait he was never to lose, visiting the past and vesting it in new garb. And in the Pavane pour une infante defunte we can hear Gieseking’s extraordinary pedalling subtleties and characteristic pearl drop tone; at 3.25 he creates a heavily pedalled wash that magically ushers in the right hand line. The gradations of tone throughout the range are fabulously exact and never calculated. Jeux d’eau is rapidly played. The River God is certainly laughing at the water here – and Gieseking’s fleetness is sometimes to the detriment of clarity of articulation even though it is unavoidably true to say that his occasional technical shortcomings are seemingly subsumed into the greater whole.

It is in fact remarkable that his two years with Karl Leimer were the extent of his official studies; his famous comment that "talent goes in inverse ratio to the necessity for practice" might otherwise be seen as an ignoble boast were it not for his laconic truthfulness and the fact that his sensibility was never obviously virtuosic but one of the heightened poetic. In the archaisms of the Sonatine (1903/5) Gieseking’s second movement is stately – with bass notes staccato and ineffably wry – and at 2.59 he opens out his pedalling, terracing the final chords’ dynamics, animated by his remarkable ear for apposite sonorities. The nonchalant flourish at the end of the Anime movement is another feature of his craft and perfectly judged. Miroirs is not immaculately played but it is so evocative and supremely imaginative that the imperfections are of little significance.

If there is some over-pedalling in Une barque sur l’ocean (and the tempo is really too fast for the succeeding thematic relationship to work) and if the two glissandos in La vallee des cloches are excitingly but not always audibly played, what is that against so much that is supreme? In Noctuelles those passages frequently fudged by other pianists are triumphantly clear. In Oiseaux tristes the middle voices are brought out in perfect gradation – tonally this is playing of the greatest imagination and technical resource. Gieseking’s rhythm in Une barque propels the chopping rhythm onward with torrents of ascending and descending runs under great control. Right hand flourishes are coolly tossed off in Alborada del gracioso and even more magnificent are his repeated notes here – quiet, fast, even and tremendously difficult to accomplish. The tonal weight at 4.02 in La Vallee des cloches is exquisite – this is truly a transfiguration.

In Gaspard de la nuit Gieseking plays up the contrasts of volume and tempo – listen for example at 5.30 – and within a seemingly constricted compass he conjures up magical colouristic inflections. The fast passagework (maybe too fast for optimum comfort) with lots of pedal is a galvanizing and macabre triumph. The little Haydn piece dates from 1909, the centenary of his death. Ravel’s admixture of tribute and harmonic piquancy is winningly done. The Schubertian tribute – the Valses nobles et sentimentales – caused bafflement on first hearing but Gieseking has their full measure. He brings insouciant whimsy to the Assez anime movement (No 4) and is never too fast for coherent articulation in the rapid movement Vif (No 6). His rhythm is always alive and animated, his tone wonderfully complex. The lightly parodic "In the style of…" are witty little pastiches of Borodin and Chabrier – and, at under two minutes each, succinct.

Le Tombeau de Couperin, one of the cornerstones of the French pianistic repertoire, is made for Gieseking. His rapid wit is accentuated in the Prelude with the use of unusually light pedalling. The Fugue is eventfully played – softened tone, even production, though perhaps with not quite the level of dynamic variety one would wish for. In Forlane, a five-minute Allegretto, his clarity never descends into artificiality or disengagement – on the contrary, this is pianism of immense contrast and life. It is not the only way to play Ravel – what could be – and contrasts with the perhaps more centrally French playing of, say, Robert Casadesus or Marcelle Meyer, both of whose impulses were rather more aloof than Gieseking’s. But there can be no greater compliment than to say of a performance that during its span one is convinced that the music could go no other way. And that is Gieseking’s Ravel.


Jonathan Woolf


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