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 d’eau" then probably this is
a true picture. All the same, this is very fine Ravel playing; Ousset
is particularly suited to "Une barque sur l’océan",
which I don’t think I’ve 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 d’eau", 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, you’ll
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.