Gaspard de la nuit
Études symphoniques, Op.13
Emmanuel Despax (piano)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 12 September, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
It’s a brave pianist who opens a recital with Gaspard de la nuit. Emmanuel Despax took on the challenge and gave a poised and lucid account of Ravel’s demanding triptych inspired by Aloysius Bertrand’s “gothic” poems centred on a water-nymph (‘Ondine’), a doom-laden tolling bell (Le gibet’) and a nightmarish goblin (‘Scarbo’).
Despax created a chaste and ethereal world in ‘Ondine’, a purity of utterance that was attractive, yet there was a lack of edge that rather undermined both this opening section and Gaspard as a whole, and failed to reveal the vivid narrative that this music elaborates. Despax’s clarity was admirable, so too his finesse – he was en rapport with Ravel’s aesthetic – and although ‘Le gibet’ was hypnotic in its timelessness and ‘distance’, ‘Scarbo’ lacked menace (if not expressiveness), Despax finding a kinship here with Liszt. There was much to admire in Despax’s lucid and musical account of Gaspard, but the lack of ‘danger’ and story-telling vividness was too compromising.
Maybe Children’s Corner would have made a more suitable entrée even if ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ was somewhat too rapide and also subject to unconvincing tempo manipulation (as was ‘Golliwog’s Cake-Walk’ to close the suite), but the in-between movements (played virtually attacca, to advantage) enjoyed an attractive innocence and avoidance of mannered cliché.
After an interval, which seemed to drag much longer than the ‘standard’ 20 minutes, Despax gave an ‘epic’ account of Schumann’s Études symphoniques, close to the 40-minute mark and including the five ‘Posthumous’ variations. Despax now drew a richer palette of colours from the Fazioli piano – but pianissimos remained less that ideally quiet. If, initially, there was a lack of impulsiveness, as the performance developed one became more aware of Despax’s ability to communicate (the French pieces had sometimes not ‘reached out’) and there was much that was affecting and stimulating in what had been a thoughtfully organised and integrated performance, one that had a long reach and true sense of culmination.
The first encore was soulful and spare (‘The poet speaks’, which ends Schumann’s Kinderszenen) and the second, ‘Mazeppa’ (the fourth of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies), was a further generous bonus and wrapped up the recital in heroic style.