RAVEL: The Piano Concertos; Miroirs – Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano/ The Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez – DGG B0014764-02, 70:32 ****:
Recorded at Severance Hall, Cleveland, in February 2010, the two Ravel piano concertos receive an exemplary pair of readings, especially given the Boulez penchant for articulate clarity in all parts. Personally, when Boulez made his initial recordings some fifty years ago, my own reaction insisted Boulez conducted less than he “dissected” a score. The result could be illuminating, but too often the patient died. With his move to the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, a softer more “humane” sound entered the Boulez equation, the palette etched as ever but tinged with a plastic capacity for color and breadth, less severe and merely “functional” in its affects.
Himself a member of the Boulez circle since 1977, Pierre-Laurent Aimard (b. 1957) exhibits that percussive suavity and coloristic flexibility thoroughly appropriate to the Ravel concertos, the Left Hand a series of unity-in-variety explosions – gloomy, jazzy, and then startlingly lyrical in turns. The sheer fluidity of technique and tone quite carry us away, from the low bassoon work to the incandescent mix of piano and snare drum, harp, and high woodwinds. We must look back to another French virtuoso, Robert Casadesus, for an equivalent “elective affinity” for this brilliant showpiece. The perpetual illusion of one hand’s filling in for a pair of hands never ceases, and the orchestra literally crackles with excitement. Irony, sarcasm, perhaps a touch of the tragic inform this propulsive collaboration, a real tour de force captured with fierce sonority by Tobias Lehmann.
The G Major Concerto immediately strikes us a happy affair, a raucous blitz of jazz and Spanish colors, the motion at once mechanical and carefree, as if a flock of trained birds swept around a cage decorated like a kaleidoscope. Something of a stylistic anomaly, the piece looks to Gershwin on the outside and to Mozart on the inside, its neo-Classic lines girding an Adagio of soft sentiments and ecstatic ariosi. The breezy finale, Presto, comes off as a daring acoustical experiment, the series of interrupted gestures and a rising crescendo that culminates in a martial parody, lit by passing allusions to Paul Whiteman’s trombones.
Aimard contributes to the Ravel oeuvre with the solo suite Miroirs (1905), the five selections having been dedicated to the band of Apaches, a self-styled group of artistic rebels. Too hard-edged to be called “impressionistic,” Aimard casts Ravel as an iconoclastic classicist a la Chopin, though the syntax is borrowed from Liszt and Debussy. Aimard exploits Ravel’s natural polyphony, or at least the constant mix of color combinations that hint at Gaspard de la Nuit or the flamboyance of Spanish, Basque folk rhythms. Noctuelles and Oiseaux tristes bristle in evanescent and glittering roulades, and the Alborada well receives a reading competitive with its greatest incarnation from Lipatti. The Valley of Bells leaves us dazzled, even heavy, with sonorous languor, erotic but tired, a dolorously sweet farewell to reflective dreams.
— Gary Lemco