The Brilliant Classics Piano Library release of the complete piano works of Maurice Ravel consists of only two CDs. This may seem modest, but it is consistent with the Works page for Ravel in Grove Music Online, as long as one is limited to the works for solo piano. Since only one pianist, Michelangelo Carbonara, participated in this recording project, that is a perfectly sensible limitation.
In my personal context of recently having experienced the stunning instrumental diversity of an all-Ravel evening of chamber music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (which happened to include the four-hand suite Ma mère l’oye), this opportunity for “total immersion” in the solo piano repertoire offered an informative contrast. Nevertheless, I feel it fair to cite a few of the disclaimers regarding how I approached this CD collection and how they were resolved. Most important is a highly skeptical attitude towards the virtues of the Gaspard de la nuit suite.
The notes for the booklet by David Moncur claim that “Ravel’s professed intention was to produce a work of ‘transcendental virtuosity.’” Presumably, Ravel’s selection of adjective was motivated by Franz Liszt having used it to describe two of his collections of etudes (Etudes d’Exécution Transcendante and Etudes d’Exécution Transcendante d’après Paganini). Most likely Liszt composed these to show off his own technical virtuosity, and they are now accepted as a major pedagogical challenge through which a piano student can establish his chops. From this point of view, Ravel recognized the motivation behind Liszt’s intentions and decided to raise the bar.
There is no questioning that he provided a new level of challenge for the would-be concert pianist. However, what are we to make of all this when we are on the audience side? Should we just sit there like competition judges, ticking off the hoops as the performer jumps through them; or does the connection to the prose poems of Aloysius Bertrand allow for a more satisfying listening experience? For better or for worse, I have yet to encounter a concert experience that has done justice to this second option; and the last time I had such a confrontation, I found myself asking (in print) whether Ravel had really given Bertrand a fair shake. Having stated these misgivings, I have to say that Carbonara’s recorded performance comes as close to a vivid account of Bertrand’s grotesqueries as any I have experienced. Any listener who wishes to become familiar with this major element of the piano repertoire would do well to consult this Brilliant collection.
The other major disclaimer is that, because many of these piano compositions were later orchestrated by Ravel himself, I am more familiar with the orchestral versions. Thus, it is to Carbonara’s credit that I could listen to his performances without memories of the orchestrations bumping around in my head. This was particularly satisfying with Le Tombeau de Couperin, since the orchestral version involved a major reworking of the original. Two movements (“Fugue” and “Toccata”) were dropped; and the “Menuet” was moved before the “Rigaudon,” since the “Rigaudon” made for a grander orchestral conclusion. However, Carbonara’s performance honored the original logic (also allowing the listener to experience the only fugue Ravel wrote after his student days); and the results are most satisfying.
When it comes to personal favorites, I would have to choose Carbonara’s execution of Valses nobles et sentimentales, simply because he was so effective in evoking the spirit of the waltz. His “Spanish effects,” particularly in “Alborada del gracioso,” some of which are anticipated in the early “Sérénade grotesque,” were equally effective. However, Moncur’s notes claimed that set of eight short waltzes “was apparently one of Ravel’s favourite works;” and Carbonara made this claim thoroughly believable.
As a final observation it is worth mentioning that the ordering of the works on these two CDs pretty much follows the chronological ordering of the Grove listing. The production thus provides an excellent opportunity for what I have called “diachronic listening,” savoring each composition in the context of what preceded and what would follow. Because there are only two CDs, one may take in the entire journey in less than ninety minutes; and it is definitely a journey worth taking.