Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Piano Concerto in G-Major. Concerto for the Left Hand. Gaspard de la nuit: Ondine; Le Gibet; Scarbo. Samson François (piano); André Cluytens conducting Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. EMI 5 66905 2 [60:54]


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The two concertos were recorded in 1960 and the recording of Gaspard de la nuit dates back to 1967. The refurbishments are first class so that every little detail is as sharp as a gnat's kneecap. The pp writing for harp and woodwinds in the first movement, for instance, is as clear as one could wish for and the strands of Ravel's often complex textures are satisfyingly transparent.

As Bryce Morrison says in his most interesting CD notes, Samson François was "a mercurial genius...(who) believed essentially in a frisson and mood of the moment that made his performances wildly unpredictable." Conductors must have approached the concert platform with trepidation whenever they shared it with this erratic genius. You feel this glorious by-the-seat-of-the-pants spontaneity in this celebrated recording.  The outer movements of the G-Major Concerto, here, are vibrant and thrilling. François's reading gives an exciting feeling of inspired improvisation; skittish, restless, dynamic. In the finale he is splendidly imprecise going for a steep crescendo, for instance, instead of a marked fortissimo descent, and he races dangerously ahead of Cluytens but without risking the structure, balance or feel of the whole. Even though he nicely balances the statement of the lovely poignant dreamy theme of the solo opening of the Adagio assai central movement in the one hand with the rather consolatory accompaniment in the other, I felt disappointed with his casual, rather detached manner. But then later in the same movement, he impresses with beautifully moulded runs beneath the cor anglais and then the other wind instruments as they reiterate the theme. Here is the delicacy of sun-glittered raindrops in the wake of an April shower.

In the Concerto for the left hand, he enters like a tiger and in the quieter sections, is as tender as a lamb (I just wish he had been this expressive in the slow movement of the other concerto) only to bound back all ablaze. Again as Bryce observes, "... his performance keeps everyone on the qui vive. Nothing is consciously worked...". Cluytens conjures up awe-inspiring, vividly-coloured accompaniments, coaxing vibrant, virtuoso performances from every section of the French orchestra. You are carried away by their spicy playing from the wild and dangerous to the limpid and pellucid. Your attention is gripped and held always. The jazz elements, particularly strong in the G-Major concerto are played with a witty insouciance and insolence. This is a strong, proud, haughty left hand concerto accompaniment; the dark opening pages are as disturbing as they are arresting. The toy-soldier like march in the middle treads with just the right mixture of hauteur and irony and at the finale the orchestra leaves with a bang.

Gaspard de la nuit is, of course, a set of three atmospheric pieces for solo piano. François's Ondine suggests intertwining ripples on sun-speckled water but with dark and possibly dangerous undercurrents. He steers Le gibet along in a certain detachment through the sinister, desolate, hope-abandoned staccato landscape and his Scarbo seems to be a sly, mischievous and horribly malevolent hobgoblin, not one to turn one's back on judging from François's creepy portrait.

Ian Lace