Alfonso Gómez Plays Ravel

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RAVEL: Jeau d’eau. Pavane pour une infant défunte. Miroirs. Gaspard de la Nuit. La Valse. Sonatine. Prélude. Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn. Le tombeau de Couperin. À la manière de Emmanuel Chabrier. À la manière de Borodin. Menuet antique. Menuet (1904). Valse nobles et sentimentales / Alfonso Gómez, pno / Coviello Classics COV 91910

Alfonso Gómez, a Spanish-German pianist who studied with both Albert Nieto and Aquiles delle Vigne, tha latter a pupil of Claudio Arrau, here presents the entire piano oeuvre of Maurice Ravel. As a pianist who is deeply committed to contemporary music, this step back in time is a bit of an anomaly for him.

Ravel wrote comparatively little for solo piano and, as you can see from the titles above, several of these pieces—Pavane pour une infant défunte, several of the Miroirs, La Valse, Le tombeau de Couperin and Valse nobles et sentimentales—are better known in their orchestral versions. The most popular and most frequently performed of the piano-only works are Jeau d’eau, Gaspard de la nuit and the Sonatine.

From the very first notes of Jeau d’eau, one is aware of a shift in emphasis from the usual light-as-a-feather interpretations to something more dramatic. Gómez plays it slightly louder and more wide-awake than one is used to hearing it, but when you consider that the title means “Water Games” his approach makes a certain amount of sense. Water does not splash quietly, and if you’re playing games in it or with it, it will certainly splash louder than the way most pianists perform it. The composer, in fact, quoted a line from Henri de Régnier’s poem Fête d’eau as a motto for this work: “River god, laughing about the water which is tickling him.” Surely one can almost feel the “water” tickling the listener in this performance.

The famous Pavane is played softer for the most part, but here Gómez uses a slightly brisker pace than one usually hears. So I checked the score, which bears a metronome marking of quarter note = 80, and by golly, Gómez is right on the money. So there. I think that some of the impression I had of this album, particularly in those pieces and movements that I’m used to hearing played with a softer profile, has as much if not more to do with the recorded sound as the way Gómez plays. The microphone placement seems to favor the brighter sonorities of the piano and minimize the softness of the sound he achieves. Part of it may also be due to the fact that he is playing a fairly bright piano, a Steinway Model D, and not a soft-grained Bösendorfer or Bechstein grand, In any case, the brighter pieces in Miroirs benefit from this combination of instrument, touch and microphone placement, and I for one was happy to hear that he doesn’t exaggerate his rubato effects but, rather, keeps them very minimal. The second piece in this suite, “Oiseaux tristes,” is played about as softly as one could possibly imagine or hope for, and he is certainly elegant in his interpretations of “Une barque sur l’ocean” and the famous “Alborado del gracioso.” Indeed, the latter benefits greatly from Gómez’ authentic Spanish rhythms, which many non-Spanish pianists cannot play properly.

As one goes through this recital, in fact, one begins to feel that every note, phrase and gesture sounds exactly “right,” and that some of the performances you’ve gotten used to over the years are in fact “wrong.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in Gaspard de la nuit, a piece whose formidable technical demands often push pianists to show off, thus glossing over many of th work’s fine details. If anything, Gómez plays the opening “Ondine” a shade slower than many modern recordings I’ve heard, but in doing so he brings out so much more detail whereas the others just present you with a faceless cascade of Pretty Sounds, which is not the same thing. With that being said, I did find his “Ondine” a bit less atmospheric, but I’ll take detail and articulation over atmosphere any day. The final “Scarbo” is as exciting a performance as you are likely to hear.

I admit that, until now, I had never heard the piano version of La Valse, which is among my favorite of his orchestral works. It’s still the same music, and very fine music at that, but to my ears not as satisfying. There’s just something in the way Ravel put the orchestration together that fits like the myriad pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, Here, we have the skeleton of the piece but not the full flesh with its many different colors. With that being said, Gómez plays it as well as can be expected.

Gómez’ performance of the Sonatine lacks the magic of Alfred Cortot, but then again, so does everyone else’s. Yet it’s a very fine performance in its own right, again with numerous small details brought out in the music. Gómez does, however, play a very sensitive version of the little-known Prélude, and he does what he can to salvage the mediocre Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn. On the other hand, his performance of Le tombeau de Couperin is excellent in every way.

Certainly one of the most peculiar pieces Ravel ever wrote was À la manière de…Emmanuel Chabrier, which does not quote a single piece by that composer, not even his famous España, but rather Sioebel’s aria from Gounod’s Faust. À la maniere de…Borodin is simply an original work by Ravel; whether or not it sounds the way Borodin played the piano is anyone’s guess, as we have no recorded evidence of such a thing. The very early (1895) Menuet antique is a very fine piece, more tightly structured than usual for Ravel, but the 23-bar Menuet which follows, not published until 2011 and written on the back of an exercise by his composition pupil Maurice Delage, is just a 23-bar filler piece. Despite the enthusiastic analysis of this work in the liner notes, it’s really not much of a piece. Yes, of course it’s well-written—everything Ravel wrote was superbly crafted—but it ends in the middle of nowhere, and thus isn’t really a complete piece of music.

We end with another masterpiece, the 1911 Valses nobles et sentimentales, and in this case the piano version works very well indeed—different from the orchestrated version, but still effective on the keyboard.

The most fascinating thing, to me, about Gómez’ playing is how his obviously “big” technique is always at the service of the music. The passages that Ravel wrote to be dazzling certainly come out that way (i.e., the “Toccata” in Le tombeau de Couperin), but Gómez doesn’t try to dazzle the listener with his playing. Form and structure are always at the forefront of his performances, thus the educated listener can follow the line of the music clearly at all times.

This is clearly an outstanding set, highly recommended for those who love Ravel—and, perhaps, even for those who don’t.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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