RAVEL: Miroirs; Gaspard de la Nuit; Pavane pour une infant defunte – Ragna Schirmer, p. – Belvedere

RAVEL: Miroirs; Gaspard de la Nuit; Pavane pour une infant defunte – Ragna Schirmer, p. – Belvedere 08002, 60:10 (11/4/16)  [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

An excellent Ravel interpretation, though a strange cover. 

Ragna Schirmer has won the highly regarded International Bach Competition in Leipzig twice and been the recipient of Germany’s top classical music award, the ECHO Klassik. Her tutors include Bernard Ringeisen in Paris, himself a student of Marguerite Long, friend and student of Maurice Ravel. She performs in prestigious concert halls of Europe, China and New Zealand, as well as at renowned music festivals such as the Heidelberger Frühling (artist in residence 2010), the Beethovenfest Bonn, the MDR-Musiksommer, the Haydn Festival Eisenstadt, and the Salzburg Festival. Ragna Schirmer is also active as a teacher. Having been appointed professor at the College of Music and Performing Arts in Mannheim at the age of 28, she has taught talented young pianists at the Musical Department of the “Latina August Hermann Francke“ in the city of Halle an der Saale since 2009.  The Ravel recording derives from sessions 8-10 January 2014 in Germany.

The somewhat disturbing cover art for this CD – of pianist Schirmer’s fondling a puppet of Ravel – comes from pianist Schirmer’s association with the Halle Puppet Theatre and their production of the “Concert for a Deaf Soul.” The music and the person of Maurice Ravel find theatrical realization in an experience that purports to be a mirror-image of reality, attempting to capture the aesthetic and psychic life of a composer who deliberately avoided publicity and interpersonal relationships, even as mental illness and physical disabilities encroached upon his creative powers. As Ravel’s mental life crumbles, film projections – animated sequences of WW I – intensify the collapse of his mental and social worlds.

Schirmer opens with the 1905 suite Miroirs, the five pieces of which imitate natural sounds, bells, a boat on the ocean, and the sound of Spanish guitars. Harmonically, the set advances Ravel’s syntax and color palette, incorporating modal scales, whole tones, clashing appoggiaturas, and the avoidance of traditional triads so that the tension lies in bi-tonality. In the Alborada, the presence of the Andalusian sensibility becomes flagrantly apparent, especially in the double glissandi and the imitation of castanet sonority. Pianistically, Ravel’s demands on the thumb of each hand become almost toxic, underlining the sequence of notes above or adding a special effect, as in Une barque sur l’ocean. The constant application of repeated notes and tremolos adds to the mystique of these ‘impressions’ of reality. Despite the blurring of color lines, the tempo and pulsation of these works remain constant, much in the manner of Chopin or Liszt. Schirmer captures the intense sensuality of the occasion, lingering in moments of the Alborada in a way distinctly different from, say, Lipatti’s brilliantly percussive version. Ravel wanted the bells of his imaginative valley to ring out in sustained effects, and the result from Schirmer becomes both haunted and haunting. Schirmer imbues her Oiseaux tristes with swooping and drooping arabesques; here, as in the Noctuelles, we feel the Liszt influence.

Few piano works confront the performer with the auditory and digital challenges of the 1908 Gaspard de la Nuit, after poems by Aloysius Bertrand. Schirmer invokes the water-nymph Ondine (in C-sharp Major) as a Lisztian water-etude after that composer’s Jeux d’eau a la villa d’Este. Her tempo, breathlessly quick, captures the sparkle and demonic shiver in the water as the nymph plies her seductions. The winds blows the rotting corpse on Le Gibet, with a persistent, even maddening B-flat to mark the passage of the sun over the dead body while a funereal bell tolls for us all.  There are moments in this e-flat minor etude when harmonies close to a Rachmaninov Etude-tableau sound forth in melancholy hues that look as much to Poe as to Bertrand. The last piece, the demonic Scarbo, Ravel meant to challenge his view of Balakirev’s Islamey, which Ravel had considered the most difficult of all piano pieces. What fascinates and appalls us in this section derive from the startling leaps and doubled, repeated note in the hands, some of which involve clashing major seconds. The Bertrand goblin appears then disappears, flirts and then attacks, only to cavort, careen, and pirouette in and out of our collective fantasy life. Schirmer’s quirky, hothouse rendition sets the little dwarf in our collective conscience with those Andalusian dance rhythms that make this particular Totentanz alluring even in its savage hostility.

The final offering, another Spanish dance, the Pavane for a Dead Princess (1899) pays melancholy tribute to the aristocratic court of Iberian nobility and to the harmonic world of both Faure and Chabrier. After the dizzying grotesquerie of Scarbo, the archaic, civilized chords of the Pavane come as an anodyne to a angst-laden world. Tender and wistful, the music proceeds with a gait and pearly elegance worthy of Velazquez. I could find no credits for the instrument Schirmer plays or for the wonderful recorded sound people who deliver these virtuoso performances.

—Gary Lemco

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