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Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in G major (1932)
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Oiseaux exotiques (1956)
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Piano Concerto Op. 42 (1942)
Francesco Piemontesi (piano)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Jonathan Nott
rec. 2020/21, Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland
Reviewed in surround sound.

The account of Ravel’s Concerto in G on this disc is very good, and deserves a place alongside several other recent issues. The wondrous Adagio assai is beautifully played, and Francesco Piemontesi dazzles in the finale. The first movement is also dazzling in the fast music, but a bit too indulgent in the lyrical episodes, as are most others I know. To explain, we need a small diversion.

Marguerite Long made the world premiere recording in 1932, when the concerto was completed. Ravel, no virtuoso himself, had given the premiere to Long. He coached her, invited her as soloist and conducted the concerto on a seventeen-leg European tour of the new work. He then took it into the studio. The conductor there was Pedro de Freitas-Branco, who shared the conducting duties on the tour, but the composer supervised the sessions. Long recalled that Ravel, a notorious night-owl, insisted on retakes well after midnight: “I could have killed him, but I did it all the same.”

The recording could be considered the most important reference point after the score itself (see a review of one the reissues). It may be the most significant in the first movement, at figure 4 in the score, the Meno vivo section, the first lyrical passage. Marguerite Long keeps the music flowing, and the movement lasts only 7:27. Almost nobody else approaches that timing. The celebrated recordings take between 8:11 and 8:44 (from faster to slower: Collard, Bavouzet, Wang, Michelangeli, Zimmerman, and Argerich in 1988). Samson François in 1959 takes 7:43, and the atmosphere resembles that of Long’s performance.

A consensus about slower tempi for the work seems to have evolved since the composer’s day: enough very fine artists feel it is how the piece should go. Long herself made a recording in 1952, where the first movement takes 8:13. Still it would be good to hear a modern recording that really aims at what Ravel wanted when his piece was new. We can guess from his acerbic observations on famous musicians who ignored his instructions that he would not have admired many modern recordings of this concerto.

Piemontesi’s impressive account of the solo part is helped along by the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, who play very well and offer fascinating orchestral colour. The bassoon line at 2:20 lies very high, and the delightful timbre there sounds almost like a saxophone, which reflects the jazz elements of the score. The high-lying horn solo at 5:20 in the first movement is also secure and eloquent. The cor anglais, which takes up the theme at 5:40 in the slow movement to a filigree piano accompaniment, has one of the most celebrated solos in its repertoire; it could hardly be better done, and again the instrument’s timbre is very distinctive. Perhaps this famous orchestra have always had “French-speaking” wind instruments!

Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques is a one-movement concerto in all but name. He said in his note for the score that it is “almost a piano concerto”. Its material consists almost entirely of the songs of birds from all over the world, as preserved in Messiaen’s own transcriptions. Sherlaw Johnson says in his book on the composer that these birdsongs “are brought together and superimposed on each other in an abstract collage of sound”. There are three sections: an introduction, a sequence of alternating piano solos and instrumental interludes, and a coda. Messiaen’s note says that in the central tutti all the birds sing together in large-scale counterpoint based on four rhythmical strophes, led by the percussion instruments developing Hindu and Greek rhythms. The orchestration is for woodwind, brass and percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, tuned gongs, wood block and temple blocks, tam-tam and side drum). There are no strings, so we are far from the sound of ascending larks. Instead we have dry, often metallic, textures, and rhythmic intensity.

The piece is very well played here. Messiaen had synaesthesia – he saw colours when he heard certain sounds – so says: “it is important to hear the colours of the sounds and see them internally. In the second tutti, orange mixed with gold and red are in the horn part; green and gold are found in the first and last piano cadenzas; the central tutti mixes engulfed rainbows in spirals of colour…” Those of us who are not synaesthetic should at least own a recording which has vivid instrumental colours such as this one. The score gives a timing of 16 minutes, and here the piece runs for 15:05.

Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, for all its modernist twelve-tone style, will return the listener to a more familiar concerto form. It links four distinct movements – waltz, scherzo, slow movement and rondo finale – into a continuous whole. There was a suppressed programme, outlined in the booklet, found after the composer’s death. This is, along with the violin concerto, amongst the more approachable of Schoenberg’s acknowledged later masterpieces. Piemontesi plays it as if he believes in every note of it, right from his lyrical account of its opening solo. The OSR and conductor Jonathan Nott are very supportive, as they are throughout the disc. That is no mean feat when the programme requires such switches of style and personnel.

Many will not want a mixed bag like this (probably unique) programme, but may prefer to obtain good versions of these concertante works with suitable couplings, making it at least easier to file. For the Messiaen, my longstanding favourite has been Paul Crossley’s version (see this review for all details). Ravel enthusiasts may already have invested in Cédric Tiberghien’s recent recording of both piano concertos (again, details are in this review). Schoenberg’s concerto was once exceptionally well served by Mitsuko Uchida and Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Philips 2001), but that is only available for streaming on such places as Apple Music or Spotify.

All that notwithstanding, this release has excellent SACD sound and Nigel Simeone’s good booklet notes. Do not hesitate if you are attracted to this specific programme. It has its own coherence, with three important but contrasting works across the early and middle years of the last century.

Roy Westbrook

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