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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Gaspard de la nuit [22:36]
Pavane pour une infante défunte [6:03]
Valses nobles et sentimentales [14:23]
Jeux d’eau [5:19]
Miroirs [28:45]
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano) (Gaspard de la nuit, Pavane pour une infante défunte; Valses nobles et sentimentales)
Nadia Cole (piano) (Jeux d’eau, Miroirs)
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, April 1982 (Gaspard), June 1983 (Pavane, Valses), Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Canada, July 1999 (Jeux d’eau), Toronto Centre for the Arts Recital Hall, Toronto, Canada, May 2002 (Miroirs)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 4768499 [76:33]
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Ravel’s piano music has a very special appeal, for, as with his orchestral music, he understood how to draw from the instrument the most glorious sonorities. This in turn fired his imagination, and gave rise to the extraordinary musical metaphors we find in such disparate pieces as the terrifying Scarbo in Gaspard de la Nuit or the hypnotic Valléé des Cloches (Valley of the Bells) in Miroirs.

Both pianists represented on this CD are well equipped to rise to the huge technical demands posed by these works – Gaspard and Jeux d’eau most of all. Ravel is a composer one might not immediately associate with Ashkenazy. Yet these are superbly characterised performances, the dynamism and devilish virtuosity of Gaspard suiting the Russian particularly well. Ashkenazy captures perfectly the fluid elegance of Ondine, a picture of the water-nymph of that name, and follows it with a chilling delivery of Le Gibet (The Scaffold). And the final movement, Scarbo, an evil, poltergeist figure, judders the listener with its sudden, violent repeated notes.

That is followed by an exceptionally beautiful performance of the famous Pavane. Never have I heard it more poignant, yet Ashkenazy achieves this without a trace of sentimentality, and all the tiny details of texture and harmony which make the piece the exquisite thing it is are clearly heard in their rightful place. He is also well able to encompass the world of Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, with its piquant distortions of the Viennese waltz. Hearing these for the first time for a while, I was struck by the way many phrases look forward to that great orchestral work La Valse of some ten years further down the line.

And what of Nadia Cole? Can she live on the same disc as a ‘superstar’ like Ashkenazy, or is she outclassed? Resoundingly, No! She is a different type of pianist as well as a different type of personality from Ashkenazy, but she has a truly instinctive feeling for this marvellous music. She has already gained a reputation for interpretations of French composers, and her Gaspard de la nuit was widely praised when it came out about five years back. She shows both delicacy and power in Jeux d’eau, as well as the requisite complete technical mastery. Her Miroirs were the highlight of this very fine CD. Some of these pieces have titles that seem to look forward to Messiaen – Noctuelles (Moths), Oiseaux tristes (Sad Birds), La vallée des cloches (Valley of the Bells). Cole projects effortlessly and without exaggeration the pictorial qualities in these, but is also superb in the grotesqueries of Alborada del gracioso (Dawn Song of the Jester), one of Ravel’s finest essays in Spanish style, and a showpiece in its own right.

Recordings are of Decca’s highest standard throughout, though the Ashkenazy tracks are possibly a little closer up in perspective. Nearly 77 minutes of stunning piano playing; this is a disc to treasure, no two ways about it.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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