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Ravel: Complete Piano Music / Steven Osborne

Ravel / Osborne,Steven
Release Date: 03/08/2011 
Label:  Hyperion   Catalog #: 67731  
Composer:  Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Osborne turns to Ravel with immaculate and striking results.

"A set of stunning virtuosity, but with delicate colors at the same time. Steven Osborne demonstrates again his great feel for French piano music."

-- William Kreindler, MusicWeb International


Offering some acute and warm-hearted aftert-thoughts, Steven Osborne complements Roger Nichols’s accompanying essay, confessing to a lifelong love of Ravel. And clearly it was time to extend his single Ravel CD (Musical Heritage) to celebrate his triumph in the Naumburg Competition and give us a most stylish and distinguished completion. A pianist inclined to leave well alone, he would surely have
Read more delighted a composer notoriously on the qui vive for all possible exaggeration or lapses of taste. As he so eloquently puts it, in “Ondine” from Gaspard it is as if “the laws of physics are being subtly contravened — the piano should not be able to hang in the air like this”.

And so it is in his performance, which is technically immaculate (the opening “shimmer of harmony” a far cry from Lazar Berman’s confused shake on his Brilliant Classics recording) and gently seductive before turning on a more sinister pressure. “Le gibet” is wonderfully desolate and static (though with individual touches of vehemence and assertion) and in “Scarbo” there is a reminder that beneath all that skittering madness lies music in rapid three-time; truly Ravel’s “Mephisto Waltz”. “Alborada” from Miroirs is another striking success, where a trickster’s ribaldry and high jinks explode into violence, and in La valse (suitably arranged and “orchestrated”), Osborne spins his dancers towards a visceral and devastating oblivion.

An occasional diffidence elsewhere (the Forlane from “Le tombeau de Couperin” could surely be more piquant and characterful) and a laissez-faire approach to several of the shorter works (try Pascal Rogé — Decca, 10/94 — for a more lilting and affectionate À la manière de Borodine) is countered by a vivacious and refined view of Valses nobles et sentimentales, including a third waltz as léger as you could wish. My top recommendation for Ravel’s piano music remains Thibaudet but this beautifully recorded and presented issue rides high in a highly competitive market.

– Bryce Morrison, Gramophone [4/2011]



RAVEL Complete Piano Music Steven Osborne (pn) HYPERION 67731/2 (2 CDs: 142:57)

Gaspard de la nuit. Sonatine . Miroirs. La Valse. Le Tombeau de Couperin. Minuet in c?. Menuet antique. Sérénade grotesque. Jeux d’eau. Prelude in a . Menuet sur le non d’Haydn. À la Manière de Borodine. À la Manière de Chabrier. Pavane pour une infante défunte. Valse nobles et sentimentales

With its inclusion of the Minuet in C?-Minor and the Menuet Antique , but its omission of La Parade , Steven Osborne’s “complete piano music” of Ravel is not quite as complete as Alexandre Tharaud’s which includes all three pieces. But neither Osborne’s nor Tharaud’s sets is as complete as it might be. Missing are two sets of variations, one on a theme by Grieg (1888), the other on a theme by Schumann (1888). Also MIA are the Waltz in D (1898), at least seven fugues composed between 1900 and 1905, and the three-movement suite for piano Danse gracieuse de Daphnis (1913)—altogether enough at least to partially fill another CD. All of these absentees, however, are either early student pieces or are probably considered too minor to be worthy of attention, for I’ve not personally encountered a single recording of any of them, a statement I’m always quick to qualify by saying that doesn’t mean none exists.

Major assayers of Ravel’s piano oeuvre on record since Walter Gieseking (1954) have been François Samson (1967), Vlado Perlemuter (1973), Jean-Philippe Collard (1978), Jean-Yves Thibaudet (1991), François-Joël Thiollier (1993–94), Pascal Rogé (1994), Anne Queffélec (1998), Angela Hewitt (2001), Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (2003), Alexandre Tharaud (2003), and now Steven Osborne (2010). Interestingly, of these dozen pianists, eight of them—Samson, Collard, Thibaudet, Thiollier, Rogé, Queffélec, Bavouzet, and Tharaud—are French; one of them, Gieseking, though German was born in France; and another, Perlemuter, though not French by birth, trained at the Paris Conservatory and spent six months with Ravel learning all of the composer’s works for solo piano. That leaves only two, as far as I know—the Canadian-Brit Hewitt, and the Scottish Osborne—outside the French orbit who have taken on this body of work as a whole.

Gaspard de la nuit with which Osborne opens his survey is probably the acid test for any pianist. Its well-known technical difficulties are made even more daunting by its extreme interpretive challenges. It’s hard enough just to play the notes, but the three pieces that make up the triptych evoke surrealist imagery of a highly distorted, disorienting, and disturbing nature. Performer and listener alike are drawn into a hallucinatory state in which one hears voices and sees visions as one who is experiencing a psychotic break.

Anecdotally, Ravel’s goal in writing Gaspard was to create a piece more difficult to play than Balakirev’s Islamey . But the Russian composer’s piece was written nearly 40 years earlier, in 1869, and by the time Ravel came to compose Gaspard in 1908, surely there were other piano works by Liszt, Alkan, and Scriabin that were just as fiendishly difficult. In any case, today’s pianists have mastered Gaspard technically, but interpretively it’s still a hard nut to crack.

Osborne’s playing of the piece has an every-note-in-its-place feeling of perfection to it. Dynamics, pedal effects, touch, tone—all are groomed and teased to within not a hair being out of place. The effect is beautiful, perhaps too beautiful, for what I find somewhat missing are Martha Argerich’s personal demons and the monsters conjured by Cécile Ousset. Gaspard , like the composer’s La Valse , which Osborne also plays beautifully, is music in which the beauty is in the beast. It is music meant to be ugly, and for my taste, Osborne is just a bit too prettified and refined, which is perhaps an odd thing to say, since refinement is usually a synonym for all things French. But Ravel has a strong modernist, neoclassical side, no doubt brought out by his relationship with Stravinsky. This makes Ravel, if one wishes to call him an Impressionist, one of a different stripe than Debussy, at least in Gaspard and La Valse.

Ravel tendered his Sonatine, originally a single movement, for a composition contest sponsored by the Weekly Critical Review magazine. The rules of the contest were very strict and the judges unbending. Ravel’s piece was the only entry submitted, but it was rejected because it exceeded by a few bars the specified 75-measure limit. Shortly thereafter, the magazine filed for bankruptcy, and Ravel composed the two additional movements to form the work we know today.

For a composer who was not a consummate keyboard virtuoso, Ravel wrote music for the piano of such technical difficulty that he was often unable to play it himself. Such was the case with the Sonatine, in which he was known to omit the last movement during his own performances of the piece. Again, as with Gaspard and La Valse , Osborne’s playing is of a crystalline clarity, placing emphasis on the limpid transparency of Ravel’s writing.

It’s in Miroirs that Osborne, I think, is at his best. Each of the work’s five movements is dedicated to a member of Les Apaches , a group that formed around 1900 and that drew to it musicians, artists, poets, and critics who saw themselves as anti-conformist, counterculture figures. It was a diverse group that included, among others, Manuel de Falla, Florent Schmitt, Stravinsky, and Ravel.

The numbers that make up Miroirs—Noctuelles, Oiseaux tristes, Une barque sur l’océan, Alborada del gracioso , and La Vallée des cloches —are among some of Ravel’s most Impressionistic pieces, amazingly varied in their application of imaginative keyboard effects to evoke the images conjured by the individual titles. As Osborne puts it in his supplementary note, “Without doubt, Ravel is one of the greatest ‘orchestrators’ the piano has ever seen.” Osborne captures the quintessential character of each piece—the fluttery shadows of night moths against the lampshade, the mournful tolling of bells in a valley of some distant, unknown geography, and so on.

Spread over the second disc are Ravel’s two other major solo piano works, Le Tombeau de Couperin and the Valses nobles et sentimentales . Only in the broadest sense does Le Tombeau have anything to do with Couperin. Its six movements, while ostensibly paying homage to the French Baroque keyboard suite, are actually musical memorials to friends of Ravel who had died fighting in World War I. Here again, the composer turns to a more neoclassical mode of expression, peppering his neobaroquish dance-like pieces, à la Stravinsky, with some pretty piquantly dissonant harmonies. Criticized for writing such superficial-sounding music for so somber a subject, Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”

The Valses nobles et sentimentales is a suite of eight waltzes exploring a genre that seems to have held a special fascination for Ravel. To no small degree, the pieces may be seen as sketches or preparatory studies that led a few years later to the extended choreographic poem La Valse . The Valses nobles et sentimentales was premiered in 1911 at a concert of new works where the composers were not identified so as to “encourage the critics to evaluate what they actually heard rather than simply judging the piece by the name of the composer.” Hidden behind the cloak of anonymity, Ravel’s work elicited boos and catcalls and its surmised authorship ranged from Satie, Kochelin, and d’Indy to Kodály.

Speaking of La Valse , which comes at the end of disc 1, it should be mentioned that few pianists, as Osborne notes, include the piece in their Ravel collections, and those two or three who do perform it in its two-piano version. The reason, no doubt, is that the orchestral La Valse is not an orchestration of a piano work, like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition ; the orchestral version came first, and the piano reduction may well have been intended for reference or ballet rehearsal purposes rather than concert performance. As a result, as Osborne explains, the piano score is missing crucial bass notes and is frequently threadbare in chord voicing. Osborne has fleshed out the piano part with some bass reinforcements and contrapuntal detail of his own intended to replicate more of the color found in the orchestral score. This he has done by meticulously comparing the two versions measure by measure.

The remaining pieces, with the exception of Jeux d’eau and the Menuet antique , are quite short but of no less artistic originality and finish. As with all collections of a composer’s complete works in a given genre, you’re bound to find that you prefer some numbers in other performances. Overall, Osborne’s effort must be rated very high, and for its inclusiveness a bit more complete than other “complete” surveys of Ravel’s piano oeuvre. But for those who may already possess one or more of the aforementioned dozen sets, I wouldn’t necessarily discard them in Osborne’s favor. Hyperion’s recorded sound of course is better at capturing the wide range of Ravel’s tonal and coloristic palette than are earlier recordings by Gieseking, Samson, and Perlemuter, but every pianist named on the list has left his or her unique imprint on this extraordinary music. Osborne now adds his voice to this legacy in a new and strongly recommended release.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Steven Osborne's dazzling technique, musical intelligence, and attention to detail merit serious attention throughout his complete Ravel solo piano music cycle. In Gaspard de la nuit, the right-hand ostinato pattern remains absolutely steady and even as Osborne shapes the music's shimmering textural washes with minimum modification of pulse and maximum scrupulousness in regard to dynamic gradation and pedal effects. The same goes for Scarbo's rapid runs and chordal leaps, as well as Gibet's repeated B-flats and soft, floating sonorities, although Osborne's basic tempo for the latter is a shade slow and draggy.

While Osborne's Hyperion label-mate Angela Hewitt brings more nuance and tonal contrast to the Sonatine's first movement, his adherence to the Menuet's cross-rhythmic phrase groupings brings out the music's woodwind-like character. His hard-hitting third movement also makes the differences between Animé and Agité audible without being obvious.

It's worth citing several examples to illuminate how Osborne's interpretations of Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, Le Tombeau de Couperin, and Miroirs have noticeably evolved since he recorded them back in 1997 for his debut solo disc on Musical Heritage Society. In Miroirs' opening piece Noctuelles, the initial theme concludes with upward arpeggios that are buttoned by short staccato chords with a diminuendo underneath. Most pianists gently throw these chords away, yet Osborne's articulation and timing vivifies their understated sting. Un barque sur l'océan is lighter and more multi-layered this time around, while Osborne's less-impetuous unfolding of Alborada de gracioso pays off by way of sharper definition all around, plus repeated notes that couldn't be more perfectly poised and contoured. By contrast, Osborne's leaner, more clavecin-evocative Le Tombeau de Couperin sacrifices the earlier reading's warmth and expressive inflections.

However, the short pieces all emerge in fresh pianistic garb. For example, Osborne's careful distinction between legato and detached articulation help shape the Menuet antique's canonic writing more than in most recordings, while similar contrapuntal clarity distinguishes his brisk and clipped rendition of the Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn. And his fluent, often understated Pavane pour une infante défunte allows the music to speak for its touching self. Conversely, Osborne lets his hair down in La Valse, sprucing up Ravel's keyboard writing, indulging in teasingly appropriate rubatos and pushing the climaxes to their most exciting extreme. The performance may not match Roger Muraro's colorful nonchalance and diablerie, but it's an impressive piece of work all the same. Even in a catalog overrun with world-class Ravel cycles, the best of Osborne's work merits serious consideration.

– Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Gaspard de la nuit by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1908; France 
Sonatine for Piano by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1903-1905; France 
Miroirs by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1904-1905; France 
La valse by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1920; France 
Le tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1914-1917; orch. 191; France 
Menuet by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Menuet antique by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1895; France 
Sérénade grotesque by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1893; France 
Jeux d'eau by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1901; France 
Prélude for Piano in A minor by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1913; France 
Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1909; France 
A la manière de Borodine by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1913; France 
A la manière de Chabrier by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1913; France 
Pavane pour une infante défunte by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1899; France 
Valses nobles et sentimentales by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1911; France 

Featured Sound Samples

Sonatine: III. Animé
Miroirs: IV. Alborada del gracioso
La valse
Menuet antique

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