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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Masterworks
Sérénade grotesque [3:33]
Jeux d’eau [6:03]
Sonatine [11:43]
Miroirs [30:58]
Gaspard de la Nuit [24:04]
Alessandra Ammara (piano)
rec. 28-30 November, 2012, Palazzo Chigi, Ariccia, Italy
ARTS MUSIC 47763-8 [76:21]

Wow. This is very frequently recorded music, Alessandra Ammara is not a household name, and the cover art is a little chintzy, so I did not expect much from this CD. Goodness was I wrong. Ammara is a distinctive artist with a truly unique view of Maurice Ravel’s piano music, and these interpretations are like no others. She takes big risks, daring ones, and they may occasionally fizzle but they still make this album stand out from the crowd. (Editor: Dominy Clements was equally impressed by Ammara's Schumann - see review).
 
Her Jeux d’eau is comparatively slow but has a beautiful soft touch; the play of the waves is water is well-captured, and it feels like it is warm and glittering under the sun. The Sonatine, with little staccato touches but exactly the right air of perfumed classical-era elegance, impresses, and Miroirs does too. “Une barque” is unusually slow, but no less compelling for it because Ammara displays such mastery of color and of the pieces dynamic range; “Alborada,” by comparison, is as glittery as can be. The highlights are the atmospheric, spare keystrokes of “Oiseaux tristes” and “Les cloches,” which share a tendency with Gaspard to have exaggerated dynamic pushes and pulls.
 
In Gaspard de la Nuit, Ammara presents a very slow “Ondine” (7:30!) which really dedicates itself to the same kind of water imagery as one hears in Jeux d’eau. The climax is gigantic. “Le gibet” is the opposite of monotone: its dynamic range is almost operatic, enough to probably thoroughly divide listeners’ opinions. Most surprising is “Scarbo”, where, in the hushed central passage (beginning 5:40), certain repeated notes stick loudly out from the dark murmurings. There’s also a novel, clattering phrasing given to certain chords at the climaxes. I heard details I’d never heard voiced properly before, and although there are eccentricities which give me pause, there are others which have haunted my memory for days.
 
All in all, this Gaspard is decidedly eccentric, even weird, but to me utterly compelling. Other readings - Sudbin, Schuch, Pogorelich - are this steely and forceful, but Ammara’s feels like it has only just come out of the fire and still glows red. She’s not authentic to the text, and is maybe over-the-top, but maybe irresistible.
 
That’s true of her Ravel generally: even where it steps out of orthodoxy, it’s irresistible. She’s a compelling artist with a real, individual voice. I’d take this over Generic Ravel Album #539 every day of the week, and at least for now I’m taken enough with her gigantic, dramatic, even operatic way with this music to defend it against any critic. This is a major release.
 
Brian Reinhart