Ravel The Complete Solo Piano Music – Steven Osborne [Hyperion]

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Gaspard de la nuit
Miroirs [Noctuelles; Oiseaux tristes; Une barque sur l’océan; Alborada del gracioso; La vallée des cloches]
La valse
Le tombeau de Couperin
Menuet in C sharp minor
Menuet antique
Sérénade grotesque
Jeux d’eau
Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn
À la manière de Borodine
À la manière de Chabrier
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Valses nobles et sentimentales

Steven Osborne (piano)

Recorded 12-14 July & 12-14 September 2010 in Henry Wood Hall, London

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: May 2011
CDA67731/2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 23 minutes



Although Hyperion already has a fine set of Ravel’s piano music in its catalogue from Angela Hewitt, it says something for Steven Osborne’s standing that he should now offer his own view for the same label of this very distinctive and ultra-fastidious music that can be so full of suggestiveness, imagery, nostalgia and deep feeling.

Gaspard de la nuit opens with potent delicacy, clarity, and with a sense of line and dynamism informing a lucid and evocative account that is hypnotic. If this ‘Scarbo’ is not the most menacing and savage, there is a focussed energy and heightened sense of fantasy that is powerful but never crude, which grabs the listener’s imagination. Sonatine is cool and chiselled without being impersonal, crisply phrased while still being affecting, the middle movement, a Minuet, touchingly phrased (as is Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn, a perfect and tender miniature) and flexible, the lively finale avoiding being mechanical. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Osborne’s playing of Ravel is his investment of shape, suppleness and characterisation to all that he does.

With the great set of Miroirs, Osborne’s wits come into their own with flights of fancy, yet he is always respectful to Ravel’s fastidious notation; nothing forced, always intrinsic. The two best-know pieces from the set (and it’s probably no coincidence that Ravel orchestrated them), ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ and ‘Alborada del gracioso’, receive magnificent performances, the former bobbing, eddying and crescendoing with forceful waves, ‘Alborada’ then given a spiky traversal that is glistening and swinging at its core. La valse begins in haze, and some left-hand bass tension, Osborne bringing out both old-world Viennese charm, a society lost forever, even to Ravel’s generation, and finding stinging venom in the work’s destructive dénouement, stupendous in its cataclysm. La valse, composed in 1920, reports a world forever changed after World War One.

Disc 2 begins with La tombeau de Couperin, another War-related piece, Ravel remembering fallen friends and colleagues through imitations of centuries-old French dance-music. Osborne’s freshness and transparency delightfully suggests harpsichord-like textures and a classicism (through time-honoured forms) that is haunted by deep and melancholic feelings without losing structure or direction but with a responsive involvement both sensitive and ebullient. Ravel’s sense of nostalgia and his appreciation of a former ‘golden age’ are also heard in Menuet antique, flawless as music and so expressive and so secretive at its centre.

Each of the miniatures creates its own sphere of expressions and descriptions – even the 40-second Prélude (a bluesy enigma of a piece) – be it the watery glitter of Jeux d’eau or the exact capturing of Borodin and Chabrier in tribute-pieces, with Ravel remaining true to himself. He can also do hard edges and jagged rhythms, as the Spain-tinged Sérénade grotesque amply demonstrates; arid yet inviting. Pavane pour une infante défunte is chaste with just enough longing, an eloquent farewell. Osborne’s traversal of this great oeuvre of piano music is completed by the Schubert-inspired Valses nobles et sentimentales (if only it could have preceded and segued into La valse), which receives a superbly swinging and sensitive account, delightful in its lilt, subtle in its rubato and exhilarating in the more-biting numbers.

Osborne’s attention to detail is immaculate, his touch is sensitive and varied, and he has a real appreciation of those oft-cited watchmaker’s skills of Ravel that make each note significant. Blessed with first-class sound, Roger Nichols’s excellent booklet note, and including some words from the pianist, Steven Osborne is fully inclined into Ravel’s world(s) yet leaves something for the imaginative listener to respond to and become similarly involved with – the partnership of sharing. This release may now be considered as the library choice for Ravel’s complete solo piano music. The two concertos next, perchance?

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