All the best: Ravel’s piano music

By the time the French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) bought Le Belvédère, his home for the last 16 years of his life, he had already written many of the works on which his reputation rests. But some of the best, including the two piano concertos, were written there and, like most composer homes, a visit to Le Belvédère is instructive. It can be found in the country town of Montfort-l’Amaury, a 40-minute train ride from Paris, followed by a three-mile walk through countryside that resembles an Impressionist landscape.

Everything about the house is precise and miniaturist, as befitted Ravel’s small stature. It gave him the seclusion he needed and allowed him to indulge his love of walking in the surrounding forest of Rambouillet. The interior chimes with the spirit of his music – everything meticulously arranged and elegantly presented, as if providing security and protection from the world outside.

Much of Ravel’s music has a touching innocence – think of Ma Mère L’Oye (Mother Goose), Pavane pour une Infante défunte or the slow movement of the Piano Concerto in G. But even when something more diabolical looms, as in “Le Gibet” (the central movement of Sonatine) and parts of the Concerto for the Left Hand, it is handled with a cool touch, so that the music’s jewel-like perfectionism remains uppermost in the ear.

Although often photographed at the piano – his 1909 Erard still occupies pride of place in Le Belvédère – Ravel’s playing was not up to the standard of his music. We know this not just from the memoirs of contemporaries such as Marguerite Long, who gave the premiere of the G major concerto, but also from Ravel’s own performances, some of which were preserved for posterity. But Vlado Perlemuter (1904-2002), who studied with Ravel, made stereo recordings that give us an idea of how the composer envisaged his music. Perlemuter also left an affectionate memoir.

A successful Ravel interpretation is a finely balanced thing. It involves subtle musicianship, a feeling for pianistic colour and the sort of lightly worn virtuosity that masks the advanced technical challenges he makes in “Alborada del gracioso” (the fourth movement of Miroirs) and the two outer movements of Gaspard de la nuit. Too much temperament, and the music loses its classical shape; too little, and it sounds pale.

For more than 50 years the ne plus ultra of Ravel recordings has been Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s version of the G major concerto – exquisite in its balance of refinement, élan and simplicity. One living interpreter runs him close. Both of Martha Argerich’s recordings generate extraordinary electricity. Her first, taped in the studio in the late 1960s when she was at her zenith, comes on the same disc as Gaspard de la nuit, another rapturous performance. Her second, captured live at Lugano in 2011, seems to create the music in the moment of execution: spine-tingling spontaneity of thought and touch.

Neither Michelangeli nor Argerich played the Concerto for the Left Hand, but both Philippe Entremont and Samson François excelled in it, without proving anything like as effective in the G major concerto. The best modern coupling of the two works comes from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, full of verve, style and poetry.

In the solo oeuvre, Steven Osborne relishes the dance rhythms of Valses nobles et sentimentales, captures the iridescent colours of Miroirs and turns Gaspard into a quasi-orchestral fantasy. Only Le Tombeau de Couperin eludes his grasp. Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s solo Ravel, just as tasteful and refined, has a more instinctive touch and a bewitching dash of insouciance, giving him the edge on Osborne. Other collections worth investigating are those of Louis Lortie and Anne Queffélec, whose un-showy versions of Le Tombeau de Couperin and Miroirs stand up to repeated listening.

Ravel also wrote engagingly for piano duet: my favourite anthology, including Bolero and an exquisite Ma Mère L’Oye, comes from Katia and Marielle Labèque.

The “problem” with Ravel is the level of competition – not so much between the various interpreters mentioned above, as between the original versions for piano and the superb orchestrations the composer made of much of his keyboard oeuvre. Listen to Le Tombeau de Couperin and the complete ballet music for Ma Mère L’Oye in the classic recordings conducted by André Cluytens, and the piano versions never sound quite the same again.

This is part of an occasional series on building a library of classical music.

For more ‘All the Best’ round-ups from Andrew Clark:

La traviata

Handel’s Messiah

Mahler symphonies


Sergiu Celibidache

Wagner’s Ring

Carlos Kleiber


Goldberg Variations

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