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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Miroirs [26:23]
Gaspard de la Nuit [22:02]
Minoru Nojima (piano)
rec. 9-10 August 1989, Oxnard, CA Civic Auditorium


I was thrilled by Minoru Nojima’s Liszt recital. Word has got round that Nojima is a great pianist who got lost, partly of his own choice since he prefers to limit his appearances to smaller Asian centres. He has refused to make any further records after these two set down about two decades ago for Reference Recordings. I made the point that I would need to hear him in a range of music to be sure whether he is a great pianist, but he had undoubtedly made a great Liszt record.

Unfortunately his “other” disc makes his slender reputation more understandable. From the start, “Noctuelles”, the first of “Miroirs”, created a somewhat confused impression and it seemed too tangible. A little way further on we have a passage marked “espressivo” but also “piano” and Nojima pitches in at a full forte. Generally speaking any crescendo, any marking from “mezzo forte” upwards and, especially, anything like “très espressif” inspires him to playing of such heavy-toned insensitivity that it is quite painful to hear.

The same thing happens at innumerable points in “Oiseaux tristes” and, in “Une barque sur l’Océan”, why the hard accent on the second quaver in each bar of the repeated wave-motif? This ocean is soon roiling away like a tsunami and Nojima’s thunderous “très espressif” – marked “mezzo piano” – in the slower chordal theme has to be heard to be believed.

“Alborada del gracioso”, though, gets a very fine performance indeed. The tempo is quite steady and there is an infectious, swaggering rhythm. The repeated notes are beautifully clear. The central section is long-drawn but the softer dynamics are properly realized at last. This is the one performance which would make me want to keep the disc. The bass notes of the piano are badly out of tune in this piece.

Much of “La vallée des cloches” is very beautiful, with just occasional relapses into playing that is too loud. A moment like the drastic shortening of the single low E towards the end – written a dotted half-note but hardly allowed to sound for a fourth-note – betrays a certain superficiality of approach.

“Gaspard de la Nuit” will perhaps stand up better to rough treatment. The opening of “Ondine”, if not triple piano as requested, might be described at least as piano, and the piece is not ineffective when sung out with a sort of Rachmaninovian sweep. Likewise “Le gibet”, fuller-toned than we usually hear, has a certain grandeur. “Scarbo” is limited by the lack of really soft playing. It sounds more violent than menacing.

Picking around for comparisons it occurred to me how many heavy-handed Ravel pianists there seem to be. I told myself at first that I wouldn’t get out Gieseking but in the end I had to. Pure magic, the dynamics perfectly observed, flexible, poised, poetic playing with a translucency of sound that speaks across half a century in spite of the elderly recording quality.

All this is a great pity. If we have to know Nojima by only two discs, I just wish the second had been more Liszt, or at least something to which he is better suited.

Christopher Howell




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