What a good idea to couple Maurice Ravel’s two contemporaneous if very different Piano Concertos (both premiered in January 1932) and add Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain (first heard in 1916) and to engage Steven Osborne to play them.
The Falla is bookended first by the Ravel G-major, a scintillating and sensitive account from all concerned, beginning with a whip-crack to set in motion this glittering, jazzy and lyrical work. Osborne brings brilliance and insouciance to the outer movements, vividly supported by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ludovic Morlot and graced by a recording that offers exact balance and doesn’t miss even the smallest detail. A highpoint (of many) comes in the first movement where Osborne’s delicate yet expressive trills (6’11”-6’37”) speak volumes and are right up there with my yardstick recording, that of Samson François. In the slow movement, in which it could be said Mozart meets Saint-Saëns and Fauré, if with Ravel remaining his inimitable self, pianist, conductor and orchestra gently ravish the senses. The Finale goes like the wind without poise and shape being compromised.
Musically, the Left-Hand Concerto offers a polar-extreme contrast to its sibling, and it’s also one of Ravel’s greatest masterpieces, from the slithery double basses and beast-growling contrabassoon at the start to the goose-stepping coda. It was written for Paul Wittgenstein, who as an Austrian soldier in World War One lost his right arm. Ravel’s writing finds pathos, seismic orchestral outbursts, subterranean if jazz-tinged marches, a touch of Mother Goose-like fantasy and a pianistic range that belies the use of one hand. Osborne’s power and compassion, the latter quality to the fore in the culminating cadenza, offers a library-choice version that is partnered intensely and with a wide dynamic range by Morlot.
In all honesty, Nights in the Gardens of Spain isn’t going to feature on my desert-island list, but I admire Falla’s craftsmanship, individuality and ability here to paint nocturnal and scented pictures. This performance is atmospheric and suggestive, Osborne and Morlot (Nights is more for orchestra with piano) conjuring an intoxicating impressionism that finds, for me, more in this three-movement score than hitherto, especially the outer ones – the second always makes an immediate appeal – and further recognition that this is an outstanding release in every way.