Hinrich Alpers – RAVEL: Complete Piano Works – Honens (2 CDs)

by | Dec 17, 2015 | Classical CD Reviews

Hinrich Alpers – RAVEL: Complete Piano Works = Serenade grotesque; Menuet antique; Pavane pour une infant defunte; Jeux d’eau; Sonatine; Miroirs; Gaspard de la Nuit; Minuet sur le nom d’Haydn; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Prelude; A la maniere de. . .Borodine; A la maniere de. . .Chabrier; Le tombeau de Couperin; Menuet in c-sharp minor; La Valse; CASELLA: A la maniere de. . .Ravel; HONEGGER: Hommage a Ravel; BRIGGS: Hommage a Ravel; AYDINTAN: Encore avec Ravel; PLATE: Erinnerung an Maurice Ravel; MASON: Galoches en d’aout – Hinrich Alpers, p. – Honens 20150 (2 CDs), 79:50, 72:17 (10/30/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Hinrich Alpers, Laureate of the 2006 Honens Piano Competition, Canada, turns to the complete – chronologically arranged – piano music of Maurice Ravel, beginning with the composer’s early Serenade grotesque (1893), which avoids any trace of German influence and opts for a Mediterranean wit. The softer side of Ravel’s ethos emerges with Menuet antique (1895), with its jagged accents in modal harmony.  Alpers can make persuasive colors without having sacrificed the hard patina that Ravel often requires. The popular romantic 1899 Pavane pour une infant defunte maintains a plastic pulse, lyrical without having become moribund.

With the 1901 Jeux d’eau Alpers enters upon Ravel’s deliberately virtuoso repertory, taking its cue from Liszt’s fountains at the Villa d’Este but eschewing that composer’s move to religious doxology and opting for a musical equivalent for the river goddess Latona. Lovely treble registration work in elegant chains of arpeggios flows from Alpers, certainly on a par with my preferred rendition by Robert Casadesus. The 1904 Sonatine shimmers in its opening Modere, although the sensibility remains staidly neo-Classic.  The two ensuing movements – Mouvement de menuet and bravura Anime – date from 1905. The fragile treble textures Ravel favors often ring with a touch of Scriabin, but without the hothouse eroticism.  The little 1905 Menuet in c-sharp minor, originally written on the back of an exercise for pupil Maurice Delage, projects a stately dignity, tinged by sadness.

The Miroirs suite (1905) combines a high pianistic gloss with vividly imaginative chord combinations, beginning with Noctuelles, night-moths in shifting metrics and sudden trills and apoggiaturas.  More evocations of flight and meditative stasis ensue in Oiseaux tristes, sad birds of the forest, given striking transparency by Alpers.  The Liszt effect appears once more for Une barque sur l’ocean, whose swells of color achieve fine nuance from Alpers.  The trill as an expressive device finds the kind of liberation we associate with late Beethoven and Scriabin. Alborada del gracioso remains an intensely Spanish etude, mastered on recordings by Dinu Lipatti, Julius Katchen, and Leon Fleisher. Alpers projects its brilliance and suave guitar effects, though a trifle academically, to my taste. The quintessentially Parisian La vallee des cloches invokes arched bell-tones based on compressed motifs of nervous color. Here, Alpers does evoke an erotic pose that had not been so apparent in his playing.

Ravel’s intentionally challenging 1908 suite Gaspard de la Nuit – after poems by Aloysius Bertrand – opens with watery bells in the form of Ondine, a sprite who tries to lure a young man into her moonlit kingdom.  The potent, glistening rendition from Alpers warrants the price of admission. Do we ever recall anything more in Le Gibet than the tolling B-flat? Maybe the moment of illumination at the piece’s center. A gallows-hanged body has rarely, if ever, had a more compelling picture, except perhaps when Dwight Frye cut a corpse down for Colin Clive.  Ravel and Mussorgsky meet in Scarbo, a three-note cluster that assumes fantastic, metric shapes and Scarlatti-like figures in the form of a plastic demonic etude.  Alpers achieves some visceral excitement here, a nervously palpable sense of malice.

Each of the ‘homage’ pieces receives its requisite stylistic approach, beginning with Ravel’s imitation of Haydn (1909), through the various other composers’ tributes to Ravel himself.  Alfredo Casella composed his A la maniere de Ravel in 1913, compressing the spirit of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. Alpers asked four contemporary composers to contribute ‘postcards’  to Ravel, so Kendall Briggs wrote his Hommage a Ravel with an ear to “Ravel’s harmony. . .his unique rainbow. . .illuminated by the light of each note.” Marcus Aydintan took the Forlane from Le Tombeau de Couperin so as to manipulate it through a modern tiny prism. Anton Plate found in Ravel’s G Major Concerto a “naughtiness that becomes a virtue,” and so wrote Erinnerung an Maurice Ravel as a “brief and quiet remembrance.” Benedict Mason conceived his Galoches en d’aout as a tribute to Ravel’s love of bells.

Given the dominance of Artur Rubinstein’s recording of the 1911 Valses nobles et sentimentales, we can pay our respects to Herr Alpers, who does good service to these Gallic versions of Schubert, sans magic.  On the other hand, Alpers reveals a natural, lithe grace throughout Le Tombeau de Couperin certainly “worthy” of the classic renditions by masters Robert Casadesus and Monique Haas on record and in recital. Alpers’ Fugue section plays like layered silver raindrops. The e minor Forlane conveys in Ravel’s own terms his appreciation of Francois Couperin. Bright colors and pert accents inhabit the Rigaudon, wrought with affective persuasion by Alpers. The G Major Menuet exudes a demure charm, expansive and quite enchanting. Finally, the glistening Toccata, with its oriental swirls and hints of golden pagodas, accompanied by rich harmonic tapestries lithely flung into the air by Alpers.

I first heard Ravel’s 1920 La Valse played as a solo by Leonard Pennario.  Like all of Ravel’s major dance forms, it comes to an explosive apotheosis and explodes of its own ineluctable centripetal acceleration. Alpers does not overdo its percussive power, rather emphasizing its essentially Viennese sensuousness. Like the previous Tombeau, this piece possesses a haunted character, but the incursions of an ill-tempered Twentieth Century make their presence known. The consistently attractive piano sound can be credited to engineers Anastasia Rybakova and Lucie Bourley.

—Gary Lemco

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