Ravel: Complete solo piano music

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LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Ravel: Complete solo piano music: Sonatine; Jeux d’eau; Miroirs; Gaspard de la nuit; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Le tombeau de Couperin; La valse; Pavane pour une infante défunte; Menuet antique; Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn; A la manière de… etc
PERFORMER: Steven Osborne (piano)

A complete survey of Ravel’s piano music is an especially challenging prospect for any pianist. It is not merely that this sublime music frequently demands exceptional, post-Lisztian virtuosity. Beyond such dexterity is the fact that, as Steven Osborne observes in this recording’s booklet, the composer’s fear of repeating himself ensure that the lessons from one work can rarely be transferred to the next. This is not merely the aesthetic change from the nightmarish imagery of Gaspard de la nuit to the elegant neo-classicism of Le tombeau de Couperin. Ravel essentially re-imagined how to write for the piano with each significant work.
Osborne is more than up to the task. The contrasting fireworks of the ‘Toccata’ from Le tombeau and ‘Alborada del gracioso’ (Miroirs) are despatched with relish, the piano exploding with power in the latter after a disarmingly impish opening. The Sonatine has a refined insouciance, while the love bestowed upon each note is clear. Then there are the numerous moments of sustained control, such as the shimmering opening pages of Gaspard. Sometimes changes of spirit occur effortlessly within a piece. Having been a model of clarity in the ‘Prelude’ from Le tombeau, Osborne treats the codetta not as a brisk flourish, but as if this particular vision of the 18th century is dissolving beneath his fingers.
Equally impressive, though more subtle, is the simple charm brought to the shorter works, such as Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn and the affectionate homage of A la manière de Chabrier – these are no mere fillers. Throughout, Osborne repeatedly demonstrates not merely that these performances stand with the best, but also that comparisons are superfluous in the face of such a compelling vision.
In isolation, some moments may be captured more convincingly elsewhere. The surging high trills that periodically ride the crest of the waves in ‘Une barque sur l’ocean’ do not quite set the hairs tingling. Nonetheless, such minor caveats are soon swept away, in this case by the breathtaking mist of spray, Osborne seemingly brushing the strings directly with his fingers. Moreover, this is a genuine, coherent and intelligently arranged survey, each disc concluding with Ravel in waltzing mood. The piano arrangement of La valse is a welcome bonus, while the Valse nobles et sentimentales find an especially strong advocate in Osborne. His sustaining of the ‘Epilogue’ is magical, as if not wishing to relinquish the spell of this recital. It is over all too soon. Christopher Dingle