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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31) [22:01]
Tzigane, for violin and orchestra (1924) [10:41]
Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1929-30) [19:08]
François Dumont (piano)
Jennifer Gilbert (violin)
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 2012/15, Auditorium de Lyon, France
Orchestral Works – Volume 6
NAXOS 8.573572 [52:02]

Here in Volume 6 of this Naxos series of Ravel’s complete orchestral works, again featuring Leonard Slatkin leading the Lyon National Orchestra, the focus is on the composer’s two piano concertos and his lone work for violin and orchestra – Tzigane. These are rather late works, especially the two piano concertos, and all three have added greatly to the weight of Ravel’s legacy, bolstering his standing as one of the 20th Century’s most important composers. More than a few believe that Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand is his magnum opus. I personally believe the work is to be considered among his very best.

The pianist here François Dumont has had a successful concert career, performing across the globe with such ensembles as the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra, and with some of the world’s finest conductors. He has made a fair number of recordings, including the complete solo piano music of Ravel for the Piano Classics label and the complete piano sonatas of Mozart for Anima. Born in Lyon in 1985, he would seem to be quite at home with this orchestra and conductor. Indeed, in almost every respect, that appears to be the case. In the G major Concerto, Dumont is right on target, though for all his virtues his approach is a bit understated. In the Left-hand Concerto his genteel manner is somewhat more evident, though in the end he delivers a fine account.

The G major Concerto is a very eclectic composition that features jazz elements, a good measure of lush Romantic lyricism, much clever wit and carefree playfulness, all in Ravel's inimitable style and usual colourful, masterly orchestration. I would say the hallmark of this performance is its clarity and attention to detail, both from Dumont and Slatkin's talented Lyon players. Dumont is mostly straightforward in his interpretation but never sounds mechanical or unimaginative. He adopts moderate tempos and generally eschews the kind of virtuosic approach of Argerich in her several recordings on DG and other labels. He effectively captures the heart of the first movement, its jazzy, sassy character, its frolicsome slapstick elements and its melting lyricism. He phrases the lyrical alternate theme arrestingly – just listen to his utterly sensitive playing of it in the reprise, when the piano music is said to imitate the sound of a theremin, an eerie sounding instrument rather popular in the first half of the 20th Century, especially in the film scores of science fiction movies. His gentle way with the nostalgic, blues-inflected theme in the second movement is also very effective, as is his colourful, spirited rendition of the finale. Leonard Slatkin and the Lyon players are at one with Dumont’s multi-faceted approach and, as suggested above, point up much significant detail along the way. This is a quite successful account of this witty, brilliant concerto. Argerich and a few others may have the edge in excitement but this version can rival them on its own different merits.

The single-movement D minor Concerto is also a success here, though both Dumont and the orchestra, as mentioned earlier, take a somewhat more mellow approach, this time with tempos tending slightly toward the slower side. The orchestral opening is broad and ponderous but strongly atmospheric, a sort of gloomy fog from the mysterious melody on the low strings and contrabassoon emerging most effectively. The second even darker, jazz-inflected theme appears and spreads across the orchestra to proclaim defiance. Dumont enters dramatically to deliver the next theme in an appropriately stately manner. I like how Slatkin shapes the ensuing orchestral passage, phrasing the now transformed “mysterious” theme to exude Romantic warmth and brightness, with plenty of legato. Abbado (with Béroff on DG) and Boulez (with Entremont on Columbia and later Zimmerman on DG) both conduct this passage in a curt, almost staccato-like way, not to my liking. Slatkin and Dumont then build the music effectively to bring on the dark, rhythmic jazzy theme, played in the piano’s lower ranges. There could be a little more bite here in this central, quite animated part of the concerto, but everything emerges clearly and with plenty of spirit, including the chirping toy music. Dumont delivers a nice account of the cadenza, though again in a slightly restrained way, and the concerto concludes dramatically. So, this is a fine performance, certainly better than most others of the fifteen or so I'm familiar with. From an orchestral point of view, I think it’s the best rendition of this concerto. The aforementioned Béroff is a good alternative and the John Browning, with Leinsdorf and the Philharmonia, is simply excellent, if you can find this now sparsely available recording.

As for Tzigane, the performance is quite convincing too. Jennifer Gilbert, sister of conductor Alan Gilbert, is the concertmaster, or leader, of the Lyon National Orchestra. She has appeared as a soloist with other orchestras, especially in Japan, where she serves as a concertmaster of the Seiji Ozawa-led Saito Kinen Orchestra. She has also been very active in chamber music, collaborating with such artists as Emanuel Ax, Hélène Grimaud, Sol Gabetta and Renaud Capuçon. She plays the opening cadenza, a very difficult lengthy one, with accuracy and a strong steady tone, and goes on to deliver a quite colourful account of this gypsy folk-inspired piece. Actually the entire work offers challenges to the soloist but, like Dumont, Ms. Gilbert does not attempt to highlight the virtuosic side of the music, favouring instead a moderate approach to seek out the work’s brilliant colours, wit and infectious playfulness. As in the two concertos on this disc, much meaningful detail emerges in this performance, allowing you to hear what may be buried or indistinct in other accounts of this piece. While there are fine recordings from Perlman/Mehta (DG) and others (like the YouTube performance by Julia Fischer and Heras-Casado), this one offers a valid alternative by delivering a clear-headed yet imaginative take on this masterful Ravel nugget. Again, Slatkin and company offer fine support with plenty of detail and lots of spirit.

Naxos provides vivid, well-balanced sound reproduction in all works. The reliable Keith Anderson offers his usual enlightening album notes. I’ll summarise by saying that while you might find better performances of these works individually, I doubt you can do much better with the threesome together on one disc.

Robert Cummings

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