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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1905) (arr. 1938, Lucien Garban) [23:16]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rite of Spring (1911-13) (arr. 1985, Vladimir Leyetchkiss) [34:32]
Ralph van Raat (piano)
rec 2016, Sweelinckzaal, Conservatorium van Amsterdam.
NAXOS 8.573576 [58:09]

Ralph van Raat has effectively been a Naxos house artist for more than a decade now; his specialism is the music of the 20th and 21st centuries and past releases have included acclaimed performances of piano music by Koechlin, Arvo Pärt and Magnus Lindberg among others. The present issue offers a completely different sort of challenge to van Raat’s undoubted taste and virtuosity: solo piano arrangements of arguably the two most renowned orchestral masterpieces of the last century. This coupling potentially offers both a blessing and a curse: it provides the opportunity to explore both the solo pianistic origins of Le sacre and to apply stylistic elements of Debussy’s compositional style for the piano to arguably his most fully realised orchestral masterpiece. On the other hand both works are so very well-known that surely they are bound to suffer by comparison when presented in such a form? Does one therefore approach this disc as a workshop on the rudiments of the compositional techniques of two of the greatest masters of the early twentieth century? Or does the disc stand up as a recital in its own right?

In my view, neither option need be mutually exclusive. The pianist’s excellent notes consider the historical background behind the conception of each work, the very different compositional methods of each composer and their friendship. He then addresses the nature of these very different arrangements in this context: so whereas Vladimir Leyetchkiss’ arrangement of the Rite attempts to recreate the piece as it emerged via Stravinsky’s fingers at the keyboard (remembering of course the composer’s famous quote about merely being the ‘vessel’ through which it was passed down), Garban’s re-invention of La Mer is precisely that; a pianistic ‘re-imagining’ of the work as it might have been conceived for the piano, based apparently on Garban’s understanding of the techniques Debussy used in the composition of the (roughly contemporary) two books of Images.

To my ears at least, the disc as a whole amounts to a game of two halves. While van Raat undoubtedly displays astonishing technique throughout and makes a brave attempt at projecting the full ambit of Debussy’s palette, he is hampered considerably by an arrangement which to these ears sounds awkward and even unidiomatic. I am well aware that this isn’t a piano reduction in any literal sense but La Mer is above all a work of great subtlety, a work that attempts to convey in sound the tiniest changes in light and shade as well as the movement and stillness of water. While the opening bars of De l’aube ā midi sur la mer are reasonably hushed, the first great climax half way through sounds weird and oddly rushed. Idiomatically speaking, and I can only speak as a listener, Garban’s attested knowledge of the procedures Debussy was using at the time does not add up. On the other hand, the pentatonic nature of some of Debussy’s thematic material in De l’aube is certainly more apparent on a solo piano.

One might expect the subtleties of Jeux de vagues to emerge more convincingly in a solo piano arrangement, and again this seems to be so in its initial bars. But so much of this is quiet music and in this realisation ‘the play of the waves’ simply seems too loud to me and devoid of the flecks and hints of tone painting. Moreover, many of the sectional transitions seem very abrupt and stop/start in their nature; again I suspect this is more to do with Garban’s arrangement than van Raat’s execution. This is ‘La Mer’- it is ultimately water music but the arrangement seems to lack a real sense of ebb and flow.

Given the awkwardness of this arrangement Raat’s attempts to project the tone-painting of Dialogue du vent et de la mer are heroic indeed, but some of the passages in the finale seemed to me to be more reminiscent of Nancarrow than Debussy. I anticipated a more pianistic treatment of La Mer and while a two-piano transcription has been successful (and regularly recorded over the years) one can surely see why there has been an apparent reluctance to record this arrangement. I have listened three times to this La Mer now and despite van Raat’s remarkable playing I can truthfully say that each of these listens has only served to confirm my original impressions.

The Rite of Spring arrangement, however, is a different matter entirely. In this reading, many listeners who are very familiar with the work will notice that certain colouristic landmarks, often those in the higher registers are ‘physically’ absent: after all so much of the ‘action’ takes place in the lower reaches of the orchestra. But this arrangement has been skilfully compiled by Leyetchkiss and the performance by van Raat is magisterial. It’s quite a feat to physically get one’s fingers around the notes in the first place but so much of what this pianist does with this extraordinary piece is implied through articulation and pure tactility. Given the complexity of the score and its interweaving inner parts van Raat’s suggestion, even creation of tone-colour verges on the miraculous – the Introduction to Part Two provides an obvious example. Admittedly, for those au fait with the orchestral Rite some moments will inevitably sound a bit ‘clunky’ in any solo or two-piano arrangement and this quibble could perhaps be applied to the ‘Mock Abduction’ and ‘Games of the Rival Clans’ sections here – but frankly any criticism of this performance seems churlish. Another singular achievement of van Raat is to project convincingly the structure of the whole 35-minute span. There is no let-up – his technique has to look after itself such are the feats of stamina and above all concentration required here.

The Sweelinck Hall at the Amsterdam Conservatoire provides a sympathetic acoustic for the Rite of Spring, perhaps less so for La Mer; while the recording is of necessity somewhat ‘in one’s face’. Van Raat faces the potential pitfalls of each work with head-on intensity; with the Rite of Spring at least, the result is a triumph.

Richard Hanlon



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