Ravel Piano Works

2002-07-01 / Gramophone / Bryce Morrison

RAVEL Complete Solo Piano Works

Angela Hewitt plumbs Ravel’s paradoxical qualities to perfection in this superb set

Angela Hewitt’s set of Ravel piano music is a remarkable feat of the most concentrated imaginative delicacy, wit, and style. Fresh from her success in Bach she shows how prowess – namely a scrupulous regard for the score, an acute ear for part-writing, for polyphony, and for meticulous clarity and refinement – can bring extensive rewards. Everything in her performances betokens the greatest care and a special empathy for Ravel’s new-classicism, for his way of paying affectionate tribute to the past while spicing its conventions with a wholly modern sensibility. Without resorting to preening mannerisms she compels you to wonder anew at Ravel’s jewel-like perfection and at the complexity which underlines his outward non-chalence and asperity (a quality she notes in her candid and delightful accompanying essay).

Everything in the Pavane is subtly graded and textured, the pedalling light and discreet, with a special sense of luminous poetry when the theme makes its final and magical reappearance. How beautifully she understands Ravel’s alternations of tendresse and froideur, his piquancy and reserve in, say, the central plus lent of the Sonatine’s Menuet. Again, no distorting idiosyncrasy is allowed within distance of Le Tombeau de Couperin, yet nothing is taken for granted. Hear her spirit away the final bars of the ‘Forlane’ without a trace of regret or sentimentality, or the way she makes the Menuet memorable rather than merely slight or charming, with final bars that linger like some gentle but pervasive fragrance.

Her Gaspard is a marvel of evocation through precision; as she tells us, Ravel “was more concerned with the effect rather than the individual notes – but it’s nice to have both!’ Gone are old-fashioned vagueness and approximation: her ‘Le gibet’ is surely among the most exquisitely controlled on record. Again, her opening to ‘Scarbo’ is alive with menace because all four of Ravel’s directions are so precisely observed; and if she is too sensible to yearn for, say, Martha Argerich’s chilling virtuoso frisson she makes no concessions to wildness, impetuosity or telescoped phrasing. Nothing is done in the heat of the moment; she keeps Ravel’s nightmare under control rather than allowing it to engulf her.

Yet Hewitt can be as romantically yielding as she is exact. In the return of the principal idea from ‘Oiseaux tristes’ (Miroirs) she achieves an extraordinary sense of stillness, of ‘birds lost in the somber torpor of a tropical forest’. She chooses a slower than usual tempo for ‘Une barque sur l’océan’, allowing her a beguiling flexibility, and in ‘Alborada’ she is teasingly vivacious.

Finally, as Angela Hewitt herself puts it, Ravel’s ‘only love affair was with music.’ How telling, too, that ‘the shutters of his bedroom in Montfort have holes in the shapes of stars so that he could imagine them shining when it was daylight outside.’ Hyperion’s sound is of demonstration quality, their illustration, Hubert de la Rochefoucauld’s ‘Near St. Tropez,’ glowingly appropriate. Angela Hewitt joins Gieseking, Rogé, Thibaudet and Lortie among the most distinguished if entirely different Ravel cycles on record, and easily withstands comparison in such exalted company.