In addition to the traditional pairing of the Debussy and Ravel string quartets, the Arcanto Quartett performs Henri Dutilleux's Ainsi la Nuit (1971-1976), a grouping that is becoming increasingly popular on recordings. These are absolutely secure, thoughtful, self-effacing readings of the Debussy and the Ravel. While the quartet doesn't bring particular new revelations to the pieces, the members play with nuanced sensitivity and impeccable musicianship. The haunted quiet they achieve in the first part of the third movement of the Debussy is especially impressive, as is the clarity of their sense of direction and unity in the final movement, the most difficult of the four to pull off. Similarly in the Ravel, the contrast between the serenity of the third movement and the raw athleticism of the fourth is attention-grabbing and invigorating.
French pianist Monique Haas recorded the piano works of Debussy and Ravel twice, once in the late '50s and early '60s for Deutsche Grammophon and again in the late '60s and early '70s for Erato. The later recordings are released here in this six disc set from Warner Classics. As on the earlier set, Haas' performances are elegantly stylish, technically impeccable, consummately musical, and quintessentially French. Pick any piece by either composer at random, and you'll see. Try her bright but sensual Suite Bergamasque with its ravishing Clair de lune or her brilliant and visionary Études with their astounding concluding Pour les accords. Or try her recklessly virtuosic Gaspard de la nuit with its frightening Scarbo or her sweetly swaying Valses nobles et sentimentales with its heartrending Épilogue. There are only two meaningful differences between Haas' recordings: in the earlier performance, she is more passionate and impetuous while in the later performances she is more measured and thoughtful.
Bernard Haitink's classically clear and direct approach combines élan, elasticity and, where appropriate, tremendous rhythmic punch – his readings of Boléro and La valse are volatile, yet thrillingly disciplined to the last. He brings a natural compulsion to the languorous eroticism of Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2, while his idiomatic handling of the earliest (and slightest) of these works, the Menuet antique and familiar Pavane pour une infante défunte, is equally beguiling. Haitink's painstaking attention to fine orchestral detail adds refined distinction to his Valses nobles et sentimentales and crystalline delicacy to both Le tombeau de Couperin and the more elusive Ma mère l'oye. There are few more vibrantly evocative, or palpably exciting versions of the Rapsodie espagnole and Alborada del gracioso. Don't be in the least surprised, however, if the phenomenal sound quality prompts an incredulous second glance at the recording dates quoted in the booklet!
A complete survey of Ravel’s piano music is an especially challenging prospect for any pianist. It is not merely that this sublime music frequently demands exceptional, post-Lisztian virtuosity. Beyond such dexterity is the fact that, as Steven Osborne observes in this recording’s booklet, the composer’s fear of repeating himself ensure that the lessons from one work can rarely be transferred to the next. This is not merely the aesthetic change from the nightmarish imagery of Gaspard de la nuit to the elegant neo-classicism of Le tombeau de Couperin. Ravel essentially re-imagined how to write for the piano with each significant work. Osborne is more than up to the task. The contrasting fireworks of the ‘Toccata’ from Le tombeau and ‘Alborada del gracioso’ (Miroirs) are despatched with relish, the piano exploding with power in the latter after a disarmingly impish opening. The Sonatine has a refined insouciance, while the love bestowed upon each note is clear. Then there are the numerous moments of sustained control, such as the shimmering opening pages of Gaspard. Sometimes changes of spirit occur effortlessly within a piece. Having been a model of clarity in the ‘Prelude’ from Le tombeau, Osborne treats the codetta not as a brisk flourish, but as if this particular vision of the 18th century is dissolving beneath his fingers.
With this disc, Vladimir Ashkenazy, celebrated for his readings of Rachmaninoff and Chopin, and his son, Vovka, take on music by Debussy and Ravel for two pianos, and the results, utterly unlike virtually anything Ashkenazy père has ever recorded before, make it a real winner. From the electric excitement of the opening En blanc et noir, through the hazy mysteries of Jeux, and the luminous colors of the Rapsodie espagnole, to the inexorable hysteria of La Valse, Ashkenazy père and fils turn in performances that match the music for poise, drive, and technical brilliance. Some might find their sonorities a bit hard-edged at points – should the opening of En blanc et noir and the close of La Valse really be hit so strongly? – but the results are so consistently thrilling that most listeners are likely to be swept away. Recorded in close but clear and vivid digital sound, this disc may not be for every Debussy and Ravel fan, but it should certainly appeal to fans of Ashkenazy.
Unusually the liner note deserves a mention ahead of the music: the fine pianist Jeremy Denk, half of this regular duo, manages to encapsulate the elusiveness of French romantic music with such insight in a few sharp sentences, his words almost shape the way we listen to this superbly played disc. Saint-Saëns' wistful and emotional Sonata No 1 and Ravel's bluesy, ironic sonata have a whipped, airy quality. Joshua Bell plays with fire and finesse, with Denk a powerful ally. Franck's dark-light violin sonata, mysterious, ardent and far more than the sum of its parts when played as majestically as here, forms the centrepiece of this seriously beguiling disc.
Lilya Zilberstein has already taken on some of the virtuoso pillars of the repertoire for DG—Brahms's Paganini Variations, the Mussorgsky Pictures, Rachmaninov's Third Concerto and so it is fascinating to hear her in music of a more subtle evocation and delicacy. And although her Debussy and Ravel are hardly consistent or to the manner born, they are rarely less than individual or distinguished. Like other Russian pianists before her she places greater emphasis on the music's sensuous and expressive warmth than on its formal clarity. Her response to say, ''Le soiree dans Grenade'' (from Estampes) is richly coloured and inflected (a reminder, perhaps, of Falla's awe of Debussy's Hispanicism) and in ''Jardins sous la pluie'' her virtuosity evokes a coldly drenched and windswept garden its flowers momentarily bejewelled by passing sunlight. She is also highly successful in the more objective patterning of Pour le piano, making the opening Prelude's fortissimo chording and shooting-star glissandos resonate with unusual power.