Once, recordings of Ravel’s output for solo piano were rare. Historically, significant “complete” recordings were made in the 1950s by Walter Gieseking, Marcelle Meyer, and Robert Casadesus, and in the ‘60s by Vlado Perlemuter and Monique Haas. Meyer, Casadesus and Perlemuter were all acquainted with the composer; the latter studied with him. A 1991 Decca set from Jean-Yves Thibaudet has dominated modern recordings for years, but lately many young pianists have joined the fray, most recently Alexandre Tharaud and Florian Uhlig. Tharaud added the early, uncharacteristic La Parade in the name of completeness, and Uhlig included a piano transcription of portions of Daphnis et Chloé.
The latest contender, Bertrand Chamayou, neglects those extras but adds an effective transcription of Ravel’s Kaddisch by Alexander Siloti, and a piece by Casella, À la Manière de… Ravel, from the same collection that included Ravel’s pastiches of Borodin and Chabrier.
The 34-year-old Chamayou is an up-and-coming French pianist who has previously recorded Schubert, Liszt and a highly praised disc of solo and concertante works by César Franck. How does his Ravel rate in what is now a competitive field? Extremely well. None of Ravel’s piano music is simple to play and most of it is diabolically challenging. Chamayou’s technique is such that he transcends technical difficulties to concentrate fully on matters of interpretation: colour, phrasing and emphasis.
His competitors are virtuosi too – but Uhlig is unremittingly robust, and although Tharaud is sensitive, Chamayou emerges as the true poet. He takes Scarbo from Gaspard de la Nuit at an extraordinary lick – the repeated notes have to be heard to be believed! – but fully conveys the menace. The decoration in Ondine glitters like sunlight on the water; the tolling church bell in Le Gibet fades in and out of focus, a cinematic pan across the foggy countryside. Chamayou is especially good at limpid legato, so important for the Pavane pour une Infante Défunte, turning the Fugue from Le Tombeau de Couperin into a more beautiful piece than it sometimes seems.
Le Tombeau de Couperin is the only place where I have reservations. Ravel’s pastiche of the clavecinistes begs for Thibaudet’s dry, aristocratic detachment. While Chamayou’s fluency in the rapid movements is marvellous, he forgoes the necessary poise by treating the Rigaudon as a heavy-footed rustic dance, and his Forlane feels perfunctory. Overall, though, this release is very special.