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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

 

Since this review was written it has emerged that at least some of Joyce Hatto's recordings for Concert Artist are based on copies of the work of other pianists (further information here). In those cases for which clear scientific evidence is available, details will be added as they become available.

 

 

Maurice RAVEL (1875 -1937)
The Complete Piano Works
Volume 1
Jeux d'eau (1901) [5:46]
Sonatine (1905) [11:04]
Miroirs (1905) [27:46]
Gaspard de la nuit (1908) [22:23]
Volume 2
Sérénade grotesque (1893) [3:27]
Menuet antique [5:44]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899) [6:02]
Menuet sur le nom de Haydn (1909) [1:42]
A la manière de Borodine (1913) [1:31]
A la manière de Chabrier (1913) [1:41]
Prélude (1913) [1:25]
Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911) [14:13]
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917) [35:36]
La Valse (1920) [11:30]
Joyce Hatto (piano)
rec. 17-18 May 2005, Concert Artist Studios
CONCERT ARTIST CACD20042 (9138/9139) [67:09 + 71:35]
 


Impressive by any standards, Joyce Hatto’s recording schedule in her seventies is comparable with that of an ambitious teenager. Her Messiaen Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus was gloriously tackled in 2004 and completed at the beginning of 2006 (see review). This complete Ravel cycle was recorded in just two days and slots neatly in between the sessions of this mighty task, but is no kind of light relief. In fact it should be seen more as something of a milestone. Some of her own personal remarks on Ravel are included in the booklet of Vol.2, and, while Joyce never actually met Ravel or heard him play, she did of course have memories of Alfred Cortot, for whom she played and from whom she received valuable advice. “Most pianists play Ravel far too fast” he said, and one of the features is Hatto’s ability to give the music the space it needs to develop and grow, without ever making it sound stagnant or mannered. She is not the only pianist to have absorbed this important point: Angela Hewitt’s excellent 2001 Hyperion set (CDA 67341/2) also comes in at 138 minutes and, as with most of the other surveys available, doesn’t even include La Valse!
 
Another aspect of her playing which is immediately apparent is the subtlety of her pedalling. This is another historical feature, the avoidance of a legacy of pianists who “suffocated” Ravel’s piano music in a misplaced attempt to heighten its “impressionistic” effect. Hatto can create the most effervescent, sparkling images, imitating that aspect of the style of impressionism which was so important: the effect of light and shade. Like the best ‘impressionist’ painting however, those breathtaking effects are nothing without absolute control of structure, perspective and depth. The ‘impression’ is a first glance: the lifetime of enjoyment comes from the vigour and intensity of the artist, built on an unshakeable foundation of technical virtuosity.
 
With a lifetime of living with these works, Joyce Hatto records them with the advantage of knowing their every wrinkle and secret like few others. Each piece has the quality of a precious stone – finely cut in a pattern which catches the light and reflects it, catching the eye so that we can admire the wearer, or with the infinitely subtle gradations of a natural crystal, which exists on its own terms and has inherent beauty. Jeux d’eau has that sharply etched, eye-catching quality, the water’s swirling, ever-changing nature conjuring images of reflections and movement. Joyce Hatto’s touch in the extreme treble of the piano range gives the illusion that those upper notes have as much lyrical sustaining quality as all the other notes – something which I’ve heard elude many other pianists.
 
The clarity of classical forms and structures always attracted Ravel, and these are strong aspects in the Sonatine. Even with this framework of expositions, subject and second subject, recapitulations and repetition there is always a narrative quality, and Hatto teases our senses with inflections and turns of mood and touch which deceive the ear and give even anticipated musical events a sense of surprise and wonder. Ravel worked simultaneously on both the Sonatine and Miroirs, and although William Hedley disagrees with me in his excellent booklet notes I do find there is a sense of continuity in the colours and gestures between the two – even where the associations are more literary, and their treatment, for want of a better term, more impressionistic. Hatto toys with the sense of space Ravel provides in the music, tossing notes into the air and catching them with acrobatic ease. Every action results in an equal and opposite reaction however, and balancing and countering flight with the weight of these works foundations in harmonic development and gravitas is central to her approach – she grounds the listener in logic while removing nothing from the extremes of light and genuine darkness to be found in each movement.
 
I have to say at this point that my experiences with Ravel’s piano music has been less with recordings than with live performance. He comes and goes, but is never far away when it comes to the piano department repertoire I regularly programme at lunch concerts in the Conservatoire in The Hague. While making no direct comparisons, the visceral experience of hearing and seeing the music being created at close quarters – sometimes while following it as a page turner – gives one insights into the demands and difficulties required of the player by the composer. Le Tombeau de Couperin is one of the regular favourites, and the opening Prélude is one of the few movements in this set where I felt Joyce Hatto fell one or two cents short of perfection. Taken at a suitably slick pace, the middle register is sometimes a little on the thick side, and there are one or two places where notes are missed or don’t quite sound. Like all true great pianists it is of course the flow and the message which is more important, and there is nothing which doesn’t ring true, nothing suspect. The Fugue is elegant and restrained as it should be, the Forlane unsentimental and brisk. The Rigaudon has impact and a dancing rhythmic pulse which urges throughout, the Menuet a poetic, narrative quality and the Toccata plenty of fireworks and an entirely stunning ending. It may be me, it might be the classically restrained nature of the music, it might have been the weather on the day, but I didn’t get quite the same feeling of involvement from this piece as from almost all of the others.

While I am leaping incontinently from one volume to the other I might as well take in the final track in this set, Ravel’s own piano transcription of La Valse, the original having been written in 1920, and not 1898 as is given on the CD cover for some reason. Hatto digs into this unbelievable pianistic beast of a piece with true gusto, thumping the low notes with the equivalent of a closed fist and darting through the twists and turns like a dancer possessed by demons unknown. The only other version I could find of this was the two piano version of 1921 in a recording Jean-Philippe Collard and Michel Béroff made for EMI in 1980. This alternative sounds tinny and distant by comparison, and Hatto gets more thud and grunt out of her piano than those two put together, though I’m sure some of this can be put down to their recorded sound. As a soloist Hatto seems to have far more flexibility, and I find the two piano version gains nothing over her heroic solo performance. If the left hand at 3:20, and again at 9:53 doesn’t make you jump it’s time to have a doctor look down your ears with his little torch, but just listen to all of those secondary voices as well – there’s true subtlety at work the whole time. My mate Johan the piano paid Hatto the compliment of listening in silent fascination (aside from some awed guffaws in the most amazing passages) when I played him some extracts from this set, and summed up the recordings with suitably laconic Fries dryness: ‘Zij kan er wat van…’ meaning ‘she has the ability’, but implying much, much more. 
 
Gaspard de la nuit has to be central in any Ravel programme, and with recordings and performances from the likes of Martha Argerich having almost legendary status it carries more baggage than many of Ravel’s other solo piano pieces. Hatto can swing from lyrical restraint to cataclysmic turmoil with Ondine in a way which I can honestly say I’ve never heard in quite the same way either on record or the concert stage. For me there is no real ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in comparing the top recordings of this amazing piece as, like all truly great music it has so much to offer through a myriad of interpretations. The gradations in colour and purity of shapes Hatto creates in the second movement, Le gibet, defy superlatives – and when I run out of superlatives my tear ducts take over. Scarbo is truly grotesque in this recording, both as a distorted figure and as a hideous character – one who doesn’t mind letting you know all about it either: he can poison your day with words alone, and it is almost a relief when he finally lets go.
 
Everywhere else you turn on these discs will provide further delight, and each of the shorter pieces is a nugget of discovery, each one sounding fresh and newly minted – the joy of the musician in having such musical gifts (in every sense of the word) coming through and providing your ears with an irresistible feast. The Valses nobles et sentimentales pre-date La Valse, but with Hatto the opening movement has more than a little of that mad glint in the eye which infects the later work. The shifting moods sometimes distort those painted perspectives like the dance viewed through a glass of absinthe, and from those watery reflections of nature in Jeux d’eau we are very much more involved in human fallibility, flitting amorous coquetries and intimate uncertainties, or the triumph of the dance over all other weakness.
 
Joyce Hatto’s gift is one of communication. She is of course the conduit through which we can experience the music of a great composer, but through her we can also listen within, beyond, and behind the notes. Character and mood emerge as naturally and easily as breathing, never forgetting that breathing can sometimes be a heroically laborious and painful effort. I sincerely hope and trust that we shall see this Ravel set placed firmly between the others you might expect to find on your specialist shop’s shelves. Given the choice, and remembering my days as a record shop lackey, I would place it in your hands and propel you gently but firmly to the checkout counter – safe in the knowledge that I would receive no complaints the day after. Who knows, I might even get a bunch of flowers!
 
Dominy Clements                                                   
 

 



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