> RAVEL complete solo piano Hewitt [PL]: Classical CD Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
The complete solo piano music

CD1 [68.09]
Menuet antique [6.29]
Pavane pour une infante défunte [7.04]
Sonatine [11.54]
Valses nobles et sentimentales [17.00]
Le Tombeau de Couperin [25.42]
CD2 [70.02]
Sérénade grotesque [3.53]
Jeux d’eau [5.42]
Gaspard de la nuit [23.28]
Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn [2.00]
Prélude [1.25]
A la manière de Borodine [1.37]
A la manière de Chabrier [2.13]
Miroirs [29.45]
Angela Hewitt (piano)
recorded in Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany, 20-23 March 2000, and Henry Wood Hall, London, 11-14 August 2001 DDD
HYPERION CDA 67341/2 [138.11]

Who seems the more likely prospect for a complete new recording of Ravel’s piano music – a proven Debussy pianist like Zimerman, Thibaudet or Kocsis; or a Bach specialist like Hewitt, Perahia or Schiff? An interesting question indeed!

Having taught in Higher Education for thirty years, I’ve always been intrigued by the ‘convenience couplings’ of composers favoured by casual music-lovers and amateur musicologists; and I’ve always been keen to ensure that students are better able to distinguish between Bach and Handel, Mozart and Haydn, Bruckner and Mahler, Debussy and Ravel, and so on. In truth, for all that we like to think of Debussy and Ravel as jointly representative of the ‘French School’ (whatever that is) at the turn of the last century, they are utterly different in their stylistic leanings, in temperament, in their interests and influences, and in terms of chronology.

It doesn’t actually follow that, de facto, a good Debussy pianist makes a good Ravel pianist. Of the works included on the two marvellous CDs under consideration here, Jeux d’eau, Gaspard de la nuit and Miroirs may be said to be loosely ‘impressionistic’, and so comparable – in terms of harmonic and textural colour, and the evocation of non-musical imagery – to the Debussy of the two books of Préludes. These pieces demand a vast range of pianistic colour, a fantastic imagination, and a good degree of expressive freedom. There is no question that Angela Hewitt possesses all of these qualities, but it has to be admitted that Thibaudet, in the rival Decca recording, paints even richer colours and evokes even more atmosphere, to say nothing of the more theatrical scale of his playing.

It’s important to follow these comments through by suggesting that Ms Hewitt’s more careful, more intimate voice may not necessarily be a disadvantage. She brings a wonderfully subtle delicacy to the flashes of light and passing shadows of Jeux d’eau. In Oiseaux tristes (from Miroirs), the forest is unmistakably dense and the summer unquestionably hot; but neither overwhelms you, so tender is her playing. And Le gibet (the central movement of Gaspard de la nuit) is as spooky as any, and beautifully ‘orchestrated’.

Comparing Hewitt’s performance of the outer movements of Gaspard de la nuit with ‘big’ players like Argerich and Pogorelich is interesting. Hewitt’s virtuosity is not in question, but it is contained: with Argerich and Pogorelich, it is more overtly evidenced in much wider-ranging dynamic detail, both horizontally (i.e. from bar to bar, or from page to page) and vertically, i.e. between voices, or between layers in the texture. So the opening bars of Ondine is, to Pogorelich, like an orchestra of murmuring and muted strings accompanying a plaintive cor anglais; whereas Hewitt plays the two musical planes like different registers of a harpsichord, both of them admirably clear, but neither more prominent than the other.

The neo-baroque and neo-classical pieces in this collection (notably Pavane pour une infante défunte, Sonatine and Le Tombeau de Couperin) are eminently suited to a player such as Angela Hewitt, who has shown exemplary artistic judgment and control in the 18th century keyboard repertory: witness her award-winning recordings on the Hyperion label of the Bach Partitas, the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations. The restrained gestures, the delicate melodic ornaments, the harpsichord-like figurations, the subtle dance rhythms, the finely-balanced and beautifully-engineered structures: Hewitt’s attention to such exquisite details is perfect. Witness the buzzing semiquavers and grace-notes of the Prélude to Le Tombeau de Couperin, the crystalline counterpoint of the following Fugue, or the precious jewel-like Menuet, with its irresistible talking phrases!

As we have come to expect in Hyperion releases, the CD booklet is exemplary – scholarly and comprehensive, indeed a joy to own. And the recording is outstandingly truthful. I would not want anyone who is remotely tempted by this exciting issue to hold back on account of one or two of my comments: this is supremely musical playing. Just be aware that Thibaudet’s ‘orchestra’ (on Decca 433 515-2) plays with more abandon, its various departmental colours more extrovertly evident. But, as I’ve already said, that doesn’t necessarily make it better!

Peter J Lawson

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