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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Complete Music for Solo Piano
Valses nobles et sentimentales [16:40]
Gaspard de la Nuit [22:08]
Jeux d'eau [6:05]
Le Tombeau de Couperin [26:32]
Prélude [1:37]
Miroirs [30:47]
Menuet sur le nom de Haydn [1:57]
Menuet antique [7:04]
Sérénade grotesque [3:56]
Sonatine [11:58]
À la manière de Borodine [1:48]
À la manière de Chabrier [2:03]
Pavane pour une infante défunte [6:47]
Gordon Fergus-Thompson (piano)
rec. 1990, All Saints Church, Petersham, UK
ELOQUENCE 4829041 [71:37 + 68:07]

Gordon Fergus-Thompson’s recordings of French and Russian music were among the most valuable of their day. Now that Eloquence has reissued his complete Scriabin and Debussy, we can hear that they remain valuable still, for all that there have been several fine successors. Eloquence now brings back the Ravel cycle Fergus-Thompson made for the ASV label in 1990. It could not be more welcome, as it can still be highly recommended.

Modéré - très franc (moderate - very direct) reads the marking for the opening waltz of Valses nobles et sentimentales. Fergus-Thompson gets it dead right. Less swift or dance-like than some, his reading emphasises the discordant harmony that troubled the first audience. There is plenty of the spirit of the dance subsequently, and no little subtlety of rubato. The latter quality is essential to the effect of the work’s wonderful epilogue, of which the composer was especially proud, as fragments of theme are recalled only to fade away. Fergus-Thompson evokes the sense of an empty ballroom, from which the waltzing couples have departed but which is still haunted by ghostly echoes of their music.

The two most popular of Ravel’s piano pieces are quite unhackneyed here. The Lisztian figuration in Jeux d’eau is precise and sparkling, and the Pavane pour une infante défunte has all the requisite dignified pathos. There is timeless elegance too in the Le Tombeau de Couperin, especially the Forlane and the Menuet. The fugue (less familiar as it was omitted from the orchestral version) is bone-dry, its three voices distinctly articulated, and expressive in its simplicity of effect, while the virtuoso Toccata (also left out of the orchestral transcription) is given a dazzling performance, right up to its very brilliant conclusion. In the Sonatine, Ravel repudiated the notion that the diminutive of the title implies any reduction in virtuosity or feeling, and Fergus-Thompson provides both in ideal measure.

Among the five movements of the great Miroirs, the Alborada del gracioso is the best known and the most challenging technically. Its rapid repeated note motif needs a piano with a responsive mechanism if the tricky rhythm is to be register accurately. Fergus-Thompson gets that just right, as he does much else. In the final La vallée des cloches he differentiates the different bell sounds with nuance and distils the great central melody with true Ravelian tendresse, never sentimental. The other big item of the release of course is Gaspard de la nuit, which is given a splendid realisation. The taxing opening of Ondine shimmers as it must, and the omnipresent tolling B flats of Le gibet never become monotonous, as the tension of this macabre scene is maintained throughout. Scarbo seems to hold no terrors for this artist, but only in the technical sense – that scary creature is vividly portrayed by the keyboard wizardry.

The various minor pieces are played equally sensitively, and the recording is remarkably fine. Its clarity is a real advantage in letting us hear Ravel’s harmony and the pianist’s skilful balance of the various strands in Ravel’s more complex textures. The acoustic is sympathetic, not too close or too reverberant, and there is no clangour or hardness in loud passages. There is a very good booklet note (English only) by Bryce Morrison. This issue is another excellent addition to the catalogue of the invaluable Eloquence label.

“Complete Music for Solo Piano” reads the CD booklet cover. But what counts as complete? It seems legitimate to exclude works like Rapsodie Espagnole and La Valse, because they were conceived for orchestra, even though Ravel’s own piano transcriptions exist, as well as Ma Mère L’Oye which is for piano duet. Pascal Rogé’s ‘Double Decca’ adds Ma Mère L’Oye. Another good set, by Roger Muraro on Accord, has both Ma Mère L’Oye and La Valse on the two CDs. Furthermore, the Sérénade grotesque of 1893 became available generally only in 1975, so it is absent from such older but still fine sets as Rogé, Jacques Rouivier, Kun Woo Paik, Samson François, and of course Gieseking and Perlmuter from the 1950s. But Fergus-Thompson’s set has what almost all issues consider the complete music for piano seul. To the names already mentioned, one should add Angela Hewitt, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Jean-Philippe Collard, Bertrand Chamayou, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, and doubtless many others I have not heard, like the much-praised Scot, Stephen Osborne. But this other Scot, Fergus-Thompson, unquestionably has a place in this company, and at the top table.

Roy Westbrook

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