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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Jeux de Miroirs
Alborada del gracioso pour orchestre (from Miroirs M.43) (orch. 1918-19) [7:51]
Le Tombeau de Couperin. 6 pièces pour piano deux mains, M. 68 (1914-17) [25:52]
Concerto in G major, M. 83 (1929-31) [22:20]
Le Tombeau de Couperin Suite d’orchestre, M. 68a (orch 1919) [17:44]
Alborada del gracioso. (1904-05) Pour piano [7:09]
Javier Perianes (piano)
Orchestre de Paris/Josep Pons
rec. 2017/18, Philharmonie de Paris; Sala Unicaja Maria Cristine, Malaga
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902326 [81:05]

This generously filled CD contains a stimulatingly planned programme. The listener is offered the chance to compare and contrast two of Ravel’s masterpieces for solo piano with his own orchestrations of the same music. As you’ll see from the header, the programme is designed as a kind of arch with the Piano Concerto at its apex. That makes for very satisfying listening but I found it was also very rewarding to listen to the two orchestral works preceded by the piano originals and I’ll discuss the programme in that order.

Alborada del gracioso is the fourth of the five piano pieces that Ravel grouped under the collective title Miroirs. In this performance of the piano original Javier Perianes makes the opening music sound nimble and gay, as it should. The central slow section (from 1:54) represents the old jester singing. Here, Perianes is very free and poetic. Overall, I found his performance colourful and evocative. In the subsequent orchestral version Ravel was even more successful in suggesting the sound of a Spanish guitar. The greater range of vivid colours enables him to paint the musical scene even more winningly than in the original. Josep Pons secures a very enjoyable, colourful performance – I love the plaintive bassoon solo which represents the jester’s song. Hearing the two versions of the piece in sequence reinforces one’s appreciation of Ravel’s mastery when it comes both to pianistic colouring and the wider orchestral palette.

Comparisons are equally rewarding in the case of Le Tombeau de Couperin. Ravel wrote these six piano pieces between 1914 and 1917; progress on them was interrupted by his war service. Each piece was dedicated to the memory of a friend – or, in the case of ‘Rigadoun’ to a pair of brothers. However, in the booklet we’re reminded of the view of Marguerite Long, who premiered the work; she pointed out that there’s no funeral music or lamenting in these pieces; rather the music is positive in tone and celebrates the love of life which Ravel’s dead friends felt.

I enjoyed Javier Perianes’ account of these pieces very much indeed. The shimmering, fluid playing in ‘Prélude’ conjures up an aural picture of a bubbling spring. The ‘Fugue’ sounds almost shy at the start; as this piece advanced, I admired more and more the delicate piano tracery that we hear. ‘Forlane’ is graceful and elegant in his hands while ‘Rigadoun’ is vigorous and crisply articulated. His wistful, courtly approach to ‘Menuet’ is just right and a vivacious rendition of ‘Toccata’ sets the seal on a first-class performance.

In 1919 Ravel orchestrated four of the pieces – he omitted ‘Fugue’ and ‘Toccata’ – altering the order in which they’re presented. As with Alborada del gracioso, Ravel’s highly skilled orchestration of Le Tombeau sheds fresh light on the piano originals and complements the originals without ever supplanting them. The composer’s fastidious, effective way with orchestration is immediately apparent in ‘Prélude’; Pons and his orchestra offer refined playing – the woodwind contributions are especially beguiling. In ‘Forlane’ the rhythms seem rather more pronounced when the music is in its orchestral guise. The present performance is elegant but, on balance, I found myself liking the piano original even more. That verdict is reversed in the concluding ‘Rigadoun’ where I find that my preference is, by a short head, for this version rather than the piano original – but the margin is slender.

Ravel’s G major Concerto is a fabulously entertaining work. Famously, he declared that he had used the piano concertos of Mozart and Saint-Saëns as exemplars but the end result bears Ravel’s own unmistakeable stamp. The present performance is absolutely super. Perianes’ playing is a delight from start to finish while Pons and the orchestra colour in the orchestral canvass in a near-ideal fashion. In the first movement the slow, blues-like passages are beautifully done while elsewhere there’s abundant vigour and cheeky humour from all concerned. I’d nominate as a personal highlight the seamless passage of trills which Perianes delivers from 6:52.

The lovely slow movement is one of Ravel’s most inspired and memorable creations. The present performance is elegance personified. In his long opening solo, which is beautifully phrased, Perianes catches the gentle melancholy to perfection. When the orchestra joins him (2:54) their contribution is equally sensitive. The tender passage (from 6:03) where the cor anglais sings the theme against filigree piano decoration is marvellously done. To round things off the zany finale is delivered in appropriate gamin style and with evident relish on the part of soloist and orchestra alike.

I loved this disc. The music is wonderful; within this programme we experience Ravel as poet, sophisticate, wit and, always, as the master craftsman. The conceit behind the programme is highly persuasive. Performance standards are on an elevated level from start to finish. I suspect it’s the solo piano pieces that were recorded in Malaga; the engineers have achieved very pleasing results both there and in the Philharmonie de Paris. The booklet essay by Yvan Nommick is excellent.

John Quinn

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