RAVEL: The Piano Concertos; Mirors – Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano/ The Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez – DGG B001476-4 02, 70:32 ***:
Here is the 85-year-old Pierre Boulez, who once dismissed the Ravel Piano Concertos as not being modern enough, conducting them in a live performance with The Cleveland Orchestra and the esteemed pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Ravel, for his part, once said, …”besides being cerebral, ‘modern music’ is, for the most part, very ugly. And music, I insist, must be in spite of everything be beautiful.” Ravel’s music balances emotional expressivity within classical structures, a function of the composer’s inability to personally express his emotions freely. Adding influences from his Swiss and Basque parental heritage, jazz, classical and pre-classical styles, his music emerges as intellectually witty, full of exotic colors, and beautiful.
The Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1929-30) was composed for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, the best of the works he commissioned. It is distinguished by the beginning: the bassoon rising out of hushed lower strings; its episodic passionate climaxes, and the sardonic march that ends the work. Of course, Boulez has made many recordings of Ravel, and in 1995 he did a recording of the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with Krystian Zimmerman as pianist and the London Symphony Orchestra. The earlier performance is clearly superior. The version at hand is bloodless: tempos drag, there’s not enough contrast between the sections and the piano playing is routine, lacking the necessary wit and passion. The soundstage has little depth, and individual instruments as well as the piano are lost in orchestral climaxes.
The more popular Piano Concerto in G (1929-31) doesn’t fare much better. Its distinctive beginning with a clapper, the gorgeous neoclassical middle movement, and the jazzy finale makes it an audience favorite. The recording perspective – distant, as if from the back of the main floor underneath a balcony – works against this concerto’s immediacy. The clapper at the beginning of the work should jolt; this one is a distant exclamation point. Rhythmically the accents lack the snap that makes this concerto so appealing. The lovely harp-piano duet in the first movement is hardly discernable, it’s so distant. The jazzy finale doesn’t ‘swing.’
The impressionist Mirors for solo piano fares a somewhat better. In Noctelles, the birds take flight in a leisurely fashion, yet this allows the melody to emerge among the flutters. Oiseaux tristes are just that – sad birds. Une barque sur l’ocean beautifully captures a sunny day on the ocean, ocean rippling with birds in the distance. The deservedly popular Alborada del gracioso (The Jester’s Morning) is given a laid back performance, missing the extroverted Spanish atmosphere. In sum, there are much better performances of the two Ravel piano concertos available.
— Robert Moon