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Music Review: Pierre-Laurent Aimard – Ravel Piano Concertos

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The pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard has teamed up with conductor Pierre Boulez for a concert of Ravel’s piano concertos on the Deutsche Grammaphon label. Boulez continues his current recording streak with the Cleveland Orchestra and this collection features the two concertos recorded live in concert, accompanied by Aimard’s studio recording of Miroirs for solo piano.

It’s actually a bit surprising that the end result isn’t as successful as it looks on paper. The orchestra is one of America’s elite, the soloist is highly skilled, and the conductor is a walking legend of classical music. Not to mention that the latter two are both Frenchmen, hailing from a country in love with jazz, and charged with interpreting their compatriot’s dual works for piano and orchestra. And to be fair the works are delivered with overwhelming precision.

But that’s also a matter of critique: they are too precise. In the midst of dizzying displays of exacting piano work, there is a lack of soul. Several passages are hammered out with seemingly little thought given to nuance, and occasionally have all the subtlety of an explosion. The opening work, Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, seems to suffer the most. It is a rich and varied work that offers some of the composer’s most intriguing harmonic experiments. It’s also a one-handed challenge for the soloist, and Aimard seems to give more focus to perfecting the challenge (which he admittedly does) than strictly to the spirit of the piece. Boulez, in turn, matches the soloist’s forceful drive, rendering the work with a more bombastic edge. On one hand you would be hard pressed to find a performance delivered with more technical precision. But at the same time there is much that is lost in the way of finesse.

The Concerto in G Minor feels less problematic, but shares many of the same issues as the opening work. Here the culprit may be a lack of focus on “soul.” There is much more of a jazz feel at work with this piece, and reflects Ravel’s (and France in general) interest in jazz and folk music during this compositional period of his life. But again, the swing and freedom necessary to adequately support this layer of the work are overruled in favor of hard precision. This isn’t a constant throughout, and in fact the Adagio largely bucks this trend, offering a suitably lilting and emotive respite from the more rambunctious movements surrounding it. In fairness, there can be a tendency with other jazz-inspired works to get lost in the swing, and both Aimard and Boulez are careful to keep focus off of that rabbit trail. But it seems a more balanced middle ground could have been found.

Filling out the disc is Aimard’s take on Ravel’s solo piano suite, Miroirs. Strikingly, this avoids almost all of the issues with the previous works, and finds the performer sounding very much at home. Here it is much easier to understand why Ravel is often unfairly lumped in with Debussy, as Miroirs goes back in time a bit from the concertos, displaying a much more overtly Impressionistic style. Aimard takes to this set with ease, and here we have the benefit of his perfectionist technique tempered with a more nuanced approach. It is striking to hear the grace with which he moves from a movement like the slow and serene “Une baroque sur l’ocean” (A Boat on the Ocean) to the almost comic edge of “Alborado del gracioso” (The Fool’s Dawn Song).

In all, this is both an intriguing and frustrating set. In between the forceful power thrown at works that generally need more grace, there are some very spirited and precise performances. However, it is easy to find more balanced approches to both of the concertos. The inclusion of Miroirs does offer a satisfying program of Ravel’s piano writing. If you’re looking for just one recording of these works, this probably isn’t the first one to reach for. However, for those familiar with the works and looking for alternate interpretations, this does offer some interesting counterpoint to more mainstream takes on Ravel’s writing.

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About David R Perry

  • jerome

    Being myself a compatriot and a true fan of the composer, the conductor and the soloist, it is with a feeling of regret that I must agree completely with this comment. Great were both my hope and my deception, to hear this “too perfect” music.

    Forthose who seek the spirit of the concerto in G, I recommend Michelangeli…