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Maurice RAVEL (1875 -1937)
Complete Piano Solo Works
CD 1
Sérénade grotesque (1893) [3:38]
Menuet antique (1895) [5:46]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899) [5:43]
Jeux d'eau (1901) [5:39]
Menuet (1904) [0:57]
Sonatine (1903-05) [:04]
Miroirs (1904-05) [27:46]
CD 2
Gaspard de la nuit (1908) [:23]
Menuet sur le nom de Haydn (1909) [1:53]
Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911) [:13]
A la manière de Borodine (1913) [1:34]
A la manière de Chabrier (1913) [2:02]
Prélude (1913) [1:32]
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) [:36]
Abdel Rahman El Bacha (piano)
rec. 3-5, 7-8 December 2007, Nyuzen Cosmo Hall, Toyama
TRITON EXCL-00015 [61:57 + 69:19]

Not all of us may be deeply acquainted with the work of Lebanese pianist and composer, Abdel Rahman El Bacha, but he has been around for many years, appearing on the international scene at the age of 19 in June 1978 when he won first prize at the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition. Steadily building a career through the 1980s and 1990s, he has appeared in just about every major European venue you can name, and tours widely with - and has recorded - a huge repertoire of solo works and concertos.

Something which can immediately be said about this set is that it is superlatively well recorded. Even in normal stereo the piano sound is full-range, rich and detailed, the SACD stereo layer giving that extra sense of depth and presence. The five channel surround effect gives you the feeling you are being given a private recital at a top venue, even if your set-up is not quite the same as specified in the diagram in the booklet with further explanation in Japanese.

I don’t know quite how he does it, but El Bacha manages to give relatively straightforward performances of Ravel’s refined masterpieces, at the same time making the music highly attractive and desirable. By straightforward I really do mean that the playing is direct and, well, straight. At first my response led me to think in terms of four-square playing, perhaps too uninvolved and lacking in poetry, but the more I listen the more I have the sense of ‘something going on’, hard to pin down initially, but constantly drawing me back. Take that old favourite the Pavane pour une infante défunte. Almost any decent performance will have you humming along, but El Bacha stops you doing this – making you listen rather than turning the music into a bathroom favourite. Why is this? There isn’t a great deal of obvious ‘phrasing’ going on, the tempo stays constant, with the inflections demanded by the score present but not over-emphasised. This isn’t ‘flat’ playing by any means, but by a well considered lack of added interpretation El Bacha is bringing us what Ravel intended – what he wrote, rather than a pianist’s show of how well he can extend a melodic line or how deeply he ‘feels’ the music. I believe this is the clue to appreciating this Ravel piano cycle, and once you’ve accepted that this pianist is going to take a back seat to the composer, you will find a great deal to appreciate in this set.

French flavour is an important element in several of these pieces, and the Sonatine exemplifies the kind of harmonies and melodic gestures which are shared by composers and others in a Paris circle vibrant with impressionism and a general sense of relaxed joie de vivre. The music certainly calls Erik Satie to mind, to name just one. El Bacha conjures all this very well, but confronts us with another phenomenon in his playing in the final Animé movement, the ability to create atmosphere and swift washes of colour while at the same time retaining absolute clarity and a sense of articulation within every note. There is a very prominent ‘cool spot’ in this kind of playing, which stays true to the letter of the score and retains absolute control. The risk is inevitably that such an approach becomes rather dull, but I have yet to find myself bored by these recordings. El Bacha and I share something in both being composers, so I will be the first to hold up my hand and acknowledge that these might be performances which, while keeping faith with Ravel’s notated legacy, hold back on the sense of risk and sheer excitement which a truly flamboyant extrovert virtuoso might be expected to provide – a sort of ‘live’ vibe in the recording. Listen to the marvels of subtlety and inflection in Miroirs however, and then tell me you wouldn’t like to have this as a reference when you want to hear what Ravel is all about, rather than the flashes of brilliance from one or other brilliant pianist. There is no lack of virtuosity here – indeed, El Bacha has chops to spare, but respect for the composer takes first place, and this is something I applaud in a recording to which one will want to return more than once in a blue moon.

Central to any collection of Ravel’s solo piano music is Gaspard de la nuit, and in the first movement Ondine El Bacha’s secret is unpeeled a little further. Compared even with a very high class recording like that of Roger Muraro on the Accord label, El Bacha’s evenness of touch and ability to make every note sound without relinquishing lightness of touch and inner contrast is something of a revelation. You have to get used to being able to hear everything, of having every note present and correct. This is something which initially seems to take away something of the spontaneous, of the wild and quicksilver, but you look at Ravel’s fastidiousness both as a man and as a composer and you realise this is perhaps not what he was about – at least, not as much as you might believe from some performances. El Bacha’s playing is remarkably telling, expressing the heart of the score with precision and accuracy, and still generating a strong sense of atmosphere and ‘soul’. This is also true of Le gibet, where once again the music is evenly paced and the phrasing kept within strict boundaries, but the feeling in the music is still effectively present, and is very moving. How refreshing it is to hear all those repeated notes and every inflection of those mad traversals of the keyboard in the Scarbo movement - a thrilling and extremely dynamic ride it is too.

You will by now have divined that, after a few initial doubts fuelled by preconception, I am now entirely sold on Ravel as played by Abdel Rahman El Bacha. This remains entirely true, although after a magnificent Gaspard de la nuit I do have one or two reservations. One thing El Bacha seems reluctant to do is to allow the ‘dance’ music to really dance. Menuet sur le nom de Haydn is admittedly less of a dancy number despite the ‘Menuet’ title, and the very straight reading we have here does build to a fine climax. The concerns setting in at this point do however transfer themselves to the Valses nobles et sentimentales. El Bacha’s timings are on the whole a little longer than many, and though these differences might not seem much, in such short pieces they do indicate a broader view of certain tempi, and the impetus for a dance ‘feel’ is therefore sometimes not achieved. There is a kind of bounce demanded of these and indeed all waltzes, and El Bacha bounces not. Take that delightful little Moderé, the third of the cycle. The tempo doesn’t drag, but neither does it pitch one forward into a sense of physical movement. The effect of the rhythmic variations in the piece are as a result also rather lost – not that they are not present, but the 1-2, 1-2 moments have a ‘so what’ feel, rather than wrong-footing the active listener. The following Assez animé is much more entertaining however, and El Bacha relishes those little runs and the stop-start feel to this particular quasi-waltz. The Presque lent is nicely atmospheric, but falls a little in between being a dream of a dance or an actual waltz. The Vif is also good, but doesn’t have quite the wit and sense of fun that hobbling bass line suggests. None of these points are crucially damning and these performances are all finely turned, but the care El Bacha gives to his playing of Ravel means than the kind of abandon or extremes of mood which make these waltzes dance and ‘live’ doesn’t transfer quite as well to this form as with other works in the set. The ‘sentimental’ aspect of the music is another point which might have been more deeply observed. The introduction of the penultimate dance for instance, Moins vif, seems to have a potentially endless duration in Roger Muraro’s hands, where here it is superbly played, but without that excruciatingly delicious sense of anticipation that it can have.

Le Tombeau de Couperin comes last in this chronologically ordered set. Again, ordered and taking care of every detail, El Bacha is accurate and refined rather than dashingly exciting. Like a well played scale or etude however, accuracy and evenness generates its own sense of speed, and the music here doesn’t drag or seem particularly slow. El Bacha doesn’t go out of his way to give highly defined character to each voice of the Fugue, but elsewhere all of Ravel’s fascinating traditional forms are portrayed with an appropriately restrained or eloquent character. The opening of the Rigaudon is especially energetic, the sound of the pianist’s fingers striking the keys resonating clearly, and El Bacha’s skill with repeated notes makes for a stunning Toccata with which to conclude the set.

There are numerous highly respectable and critically acclaimed sets of Ravel’s piano music, Angela Hewitt on Hyperion and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on MDG to name just two. My own reference has for a while been Roger Muraro on the Accord label, 476 0941, who has a stylish way of bringing out aspects of Ravel’s style and idiom which are more often glossed over, and if anything has an even richer palette of pianistic colours to his credit than anyone I can name, even though El Bacha has him on the ropes when it comes to evenness and accuracy. Nothing El Bacha does takes anything away from a wealth of fine and well established recordings, but if you want to have the feeling of getting close to the ideas of the composer, and want to enter the game of ‘how does he do that?’, then Abdel Rahman El Bacha has a very great deal to offer. Add all of this to demonstration sound quality and well written booklet notes by Gerald Larner, and I think we end up with something like a resounding recommendation.

Dominy Clements

Accurate and refined – a definite recommendation.