January 20, 2011


Ravel: Piano Concerto in G; Piano Concerto for the Left Hand; Debussy: Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra; Massenet: Deux Impromptus; Toccata; Deux Pièces pour piano; Valse folle. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano; BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Pierné: Piano Concerto; Marche des petits soldats de plomb; Divertissements sur un Thème Pastoral; Ramuntcho Suites Nos. 1 and 2. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena. Chandos. $18.99.

Bach: Partitas Nos. 3, 4 and 6. Jeremy Denk, piano. Azica. $16.99.

Bach: French Suites Nos. 1-6; Overture in the French Style in B minor; Italian Concerto. András Schiff, piano. EuroArts. $34.99 (2 DVDs).

     Anyone interested in the contrast between the French school of piano writing and playing and the German – and between the Romantic and Impressionist schools of composition and the Baroque – can get a considerable education in similarities and differences from these releases. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is an excellent advocate of French piano music, having a sure touch, a fine sense of color, and an unerring ability to bring out the harmonic flavor as well as the melodic interest of the works on two new Chandos discs. Bavouzet handles the two Ravel piano concertos especially well, emphasizing not only their long lines and elegant craftsmanship but also a great deal of drama – more than is sometimes heard in these works. The BBC Symphony under Yan Pascal Tortelier backs him up very well, if perhaps not entirely idiomatically – the conducting is a bit more foursquare than Bavouzet’s very fluid pianism. Nevertheless, the combination is a very effective one, as it also is in Debussy’s Fantaisie, which is really a concerto in all but name (and in fact lasts longer than either Ravel concerto). Here the thematic flow is particularly effective, with Bavouzet playing the work with élan, and the very fine SACD sound helping the interplay between piano and orchestra come through to excellent effect. As encores, Bavouzet offers half a dozen short works by Jules Massenet, playing all of them with delicacy, rhythmic vitality and a fine sense of both sound and style.

     Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937) was a contemporary of Ravel, Debussy and Massenet, but his music is much less known – which is, on the basis of a new Chandos recording, something of a shame. Pierné’s only piano concerto is an early work, dating to 1886, and is more traditional in the Romantic mode than the piano-and-orchestra works of Ravel and Debussy, but Bavouzet makes a strong case for this well-constructed concerto, showing that it is surely worthy of something better than complete obscurity. Ramuntcho is a stage work from 1908, from which Pierné created two orchestral suites in 1910, and these are quite attractive as performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena: colorfully orchestrated, rhythmically interesting and quite clearly designed in theatrical mode. The Pierné disc also includes the late (1932) Divertissements sur un Thème Pastoral, which is an effective and stylish orchestral work, if not one with a wholly original sound. And one of Pierné’s most famous works – famous for a time, anyway – is also here: Marche des petits soldats de plomb (“March of the Little Lead Soldiers”), heard first on the CD but in the past often used as a concert encore. It is an effective miniature that will inevitably remind some listeners of Gounod’s charming Funeral March of a Marionette, whose piquancy it does not quite match. It would have been interesting to hear more of Pierné’s music for piano and orchestra on the CD – such as his Scherzo-caprice or Fantaisie-ballet – but perhaps those will appear on a future Chandos release featuring Bavouzet’s knowing and elegant pianism.

     The technique required to play Bach on piano is quite different from Bavouzet’s for newer French music – and indeed, although it has become commonplace to hear piano versions of Bach’s harpsichord pieces, even the best piano versions will by no means be to everyone’s taste. Bach did have some familiarity with very early fortepianos, and it may be historically justifiable to play some of his works on them, but modern instruments like those used by Jeremy Denk and András Schiff in two new recordings are another matter. These releases are only for listeners who are fans of the artists and who not only accept but actually revel in the use of modern pianos for Bach interpretation – for both Denk and Schiff play with skill and sensitivity, but there is never any doubt in these performances that modern pianos, with all their tonal and harmonic capabilities, are being used. With that caveat for historically minded listeners, the performances themselves are quite good, with both pianists doing an especially fine job with the suites’ dances. There has been an increasing realization in recent years that these dance movements – which make up the majority of every suite Bach wrote – are by no means always lightweight, and are certainly intended to have all the rhythmic vitality of the dances themselves. Denk does an especially fine job of contrasting the slow Sarabande movements of the three Partitas with the faster surrounding movements, with the Sarabande from Partita No. 6 especially broad and heartfelt. The opening movements in these three works – the short Fantasia in No. 3 and much longer Ouverture in No. 4 and Toccata in No. 6 – provide strong contrast to the lighter dance movements, and Denk is quite adept at drawing out the different moods.

     Schiff does an equally fine job in the French Suites, delving perhaps a little more deeply into the emotional side of the music than does Denk, while playing with equal flair and a good understanding of most period practices. The dual-DVD Schiff set raises the usual question about the attractiveness of visual performances of classical works to an unusual degree, since here we have a single player at a keyboard for more than two hours, with a director choosing a variety of shots to try to keep the visuals interesting – thus distracting from a listener’s focus on the music itself and providing an experience very different from what one would have in attending a solo recital. This type of recording is very much a matter of taste: it is certainly not badly done, but whether the visuals add anything significant to the performance is entirely an individual matter. One thing that does add value here, though, is a half-hour “explanation” of Bach that Schiff offers in addition to the performances themselves. This provides some genuine insight into how Schiff sees the Baroque master and his music, and helps explain a number of Schiff’s performance choices. Although not integral to the musical material, this discussion actually adds more to the performances than do the visuals of Schiff’s playing. Certainly fans of Schiff’s carefully considered approach to Bach will find the DVDs interesting and valuable; and even those who are not familiar with Schiff’s considerable knowledge and ability will be impressed with his understanding of the music he plays and the composer who created it.

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