Gaspard de la nuit (1908) [23:15]
Sonatine (1904) [10:59]
Miroirs (1905) [29:55]
La valse (1920) [11:40]
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1919) [23:42]
Menuet in C sharp minor (1904) [0:45]
Menuet antique (1895) [6:18]
Sérénade grotesque (c. 1892) [3:27]
Jeux d’eau (1901) [5:41]
Prélude (1913) [1:13]
Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn (1909) [1:33]
À la manière de Borodine (1911) [1:18]
À la manière de Chabrier (1911) [1:36]
Pavane pour une enfant défunte (1902) [6:21]
Valse nobles et sentimentales (1911) [15:05]
The piano was always important to Ravel, although he was not a virtuoso and could barely play some of the pieces that he composed. His works for piano require amazing performing ability combined with the ability to render coloristic effects equal to those found in Ravel’s best-known orchestral works. These qualities have led to the recording of many sets of his complete piano music. With this new set Steven Osborne bids fair to compete with some of the greats of the past who have recorded this same music.
Ravel wrote several cycles for the piano. These include the famous Gaspard de la nuit, which Steven Osborne plays with the requisite macabre sensibility and a surmounting of the work’s technical difficulties that is most impressive. Although the second section (Le gibet) feels a little too relaxed, the other two sections are most exciting and show Osborne’s mastery of piano coloring. Written a few years before Gaspard, Miroirs is in five sections and is more sedate. Both Noctuelles and Oiseaux tristes are played in a slightly heavy-handed manner, but Osborne’s rendition of Une barque sur l'océan has a beautiful sense of flow and demonstrates pianism of a very high order. Alborada del gracioso suffers from too great an emphasis on the underlying triplets, but La Vallée des cloches is wonderful in its evocation of the eponymous bells.
Perhaps the most famous of Ravel’s piano cycles is Le Tombeau de Couperin, even better known in the orchestral version, which, however, lacks two of the movements in the original piano set. Osborne presents the Prelude in a way that is very different from what we hear in the orchestral version, although I found it a little too propulsive. The Fugue is nostalgic - not a word usually applied to fugues - and the Forlane is quite stately. The Rigaudon is a little disappointing, but the last two sections, Menuet and Toccata, are excellent especially given their difficulty.
Ravel’s Sonatine is not the best-known of his piano works, but it contains many of the characteristics found in his best piano pieces: color, rhythmic sense and virtuoso writing. Osborne brings out all of these qualities, as well as an element of delicacy that can also be found in large amounts in the Tombeau de Couperin. Far better known is the Pavane pour une enfant défunte. Osborne’s performance of this work is the high-point of the set, with imaginative phrasing and beautiful articulation. His performance makes one look again at something one has experienced a hundred times.
Ravel wrote a number of short piano works beginning with the early Sérénade grotesque and ending with the Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn, an affectionate tribute to an 18th Century colleague (vide Dukas). He also wrote amusing, but kindly, pastiches of the music of Borodin and Chabrier. More significant are the Jeux d’eau and the Menuet antique (later orchestrated). Osborne’s version of the latter is perfectly phrased and the tempi are exactly right. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Jeux, definitely the low-point of the whole set.
The ballet La Valse reverses Ravel’s usual practice of orchestrating works originally written for the piano - it was originally written for orchestra and then reduced for rehearsal purposes. Osborne does a good job of bringing out the original’s percussiveness and sense of wildness; one almost forgets the original version. Finally, we have the ever-popular Valses nobles et sentimentales. This is played with careful attention to each variation so as to produce an inevitable summation. Mention must be made of the pianist’s coloristic sense in this performance.
There are many praiseworthy sets of the piano music of Ravel. Recent ones by Thibaudet, Hewitt (also on Hyperion) (see review) and Collard come to my mind as do the old LPs by Samson François. Osborne’s cycle stands out for his positive embrace of the music’s technical difficulties and for his great sense of pianistic color. These qualities are accentuated by the recording quality, which emphasizes the dry and percussive nature of Ravel’s music. Certainly a valuable addition to the Ravel discography.