> Maurice Ravel - Jeux d'eau [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Jeux deau (1901), Gaspard de la Nuit (1909), Miroirs (1905)
Cécile Ousset (pianoforte)
Date and location not given, pub. 1972


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French pianist Cécile Ousset has had an extremely distinguished but, at least to international eyes, puzzlingly short career. Born in 1936 she was successfully placed in the standard roster of international piano competitions in the 1950s, but entered the world arena only after a long interval, making her UK and US debuts in 1980 and 1984. Between 1982 and 1991 she made a notable series of recordings for EMI, including concertos by Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Liszt and Rachmaninov with Simon Rattle and generally confounding the typecasting that requires a French lady pianist to be delicate, refined and ideal for Fauré Nocturnes. Other concertos included Tchaikovsky, Prokofief, Poulenc and Gershwin, and it was the issue in Western Europe of her 1974 Eterna recording of Brahms 2, made in Leipzig with Kurt Masur, which paved the way for her subsequent career.

Following this successful decade with EMI her recording career petered out, though a 1999 Wigmore Hall recital appeared on BBC Radio Classics. Very recently she has announced her decision to leave the concert platform; severe back pains had caused her to have to set aside some of the more demanding works in her repertoire and she felt that her concert work was no longer giving her satisfaction. (An inadvertent slant on this decision is given by an Internet site which, with a glorious malapropism, describes her as a "world-renounced pianist"!). She has been a widely-appreciated teacher and no doubt this will continue for many years to come.

The Brahms 2 with Masur marked the climax of a series of recordings she made for Eterna between 1967 and 1974, including some Mozart which she does not appear to have returned to later. The present Ravel disc was made in 1971; all three items were re-recorded during her EMI period, Gaspard in 1982, the others in 1988.

It would be difficult to find performances which express more fully the classic virtues which these scores call for. The sound is round and warm, every note is clear but not brittle, textures are clean and she seems completely comfortable in even the most hair-raising passages. Sometimes she appears to lack the magic of distance, which may be the effect of a recording which is good but a little closely balanced. But there again it may not, since this distance is achieved in "Ondine", a very fine performance indeed, so if she seems sometimes too present in "Jeux deau" then probably this is a true picture. All the same, this is very fine Ravel playing; Ousset is particularly suited to "Une barque sur locéan", which I dont think Ive heard bettered.

A curious feature of the disc is that while Ousset presents a view of Ravel which is essentially sane, finding in his music that refinement and grace which we tend to look upon as quintessentially French, the notes by Ulf Schlawinski emphasise the sinister, decadent inspiration behind these pieces (well, some more than others), leading the unwary listener to expect something far more manic and perverted than actually emerges. Notes and performances are therefore worlds apart. However, Schlawinski does have a point. You will hear from Ousset the water playing in the sunlight in "Jeux deau", but if you wonder at the Henri de Regnier quotation which prefaces the work "A river-god laughing at the water that tickles him" well, youll find a touch of divine madness in Gieseking that is not here. Similarly in "Gaspard", while the sheer loveliness of "Ondine" could not be bettered, more decadently morbid performances of "Le gibet", more fantastically menacing traversals of "Scarbo", have been achieved. In "Miroirs" the jester is a good-humoured chap but, without embracing the manic, neurotic performance of poor dying Lipatti, Gieseking again lives more recklessly.

But I must emphasise that this is beautiful Ravel playing, and if it is above all beautiful Ravel playing you want then you should be entirely satisfied.

Christopher Howell

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