Slatkin Conducts Ravel Piano Concerti

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RAVEL: Piano Concerto in G. Tzigane for Violin & Orch. Piano Concerto for the Left Hand / François Dumont, pno; Jennifer Gilbert, vln; Orchestre National de Lyon; Leonard Slatkin, cond / Naxos 8.573572

Having been disappointed (much to my surprise) with Leonard Slatkin’s new recording oof Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette, I decided to try this disc for one specific reason: the piano concerto in G owes as much to 1920s jazz as to Stravinsky, both of which Ravel admired, and since Slatkin is American I felt that he could pull off the jazz associations in the music better than most of his European peers.

And this he does. The sassy syncopations in the first movement, which owe as much to Gershwin as to Earl Hines, are brought off with perfect aplomb. To do so, Slatkin performs the concerto at a slightly slower pace than most conductors, and in doing so he sacrifices a bit of the visceral excitement that Michael Francis, for instance, achieved with pianist Ian Parker on Atma Classique. For better or worse, Slatkin’s pianist, François Dumont, plays the piano part in the accepted “dreamy” French style: appropriate for much of Ravel’s piano music, but not necessarily to this specific concerto.

Thus I found myself liking this performance without really loving it. Despite the fact that Francis’ conducting lacks some of Slatkin’s insouciance, he does a good job on it, brings out the excitement of the music much better, and Ian Parker does not let the music languish in a misty atmosphere of impressionism as Dumont does through most of it. I should also mention that Cécile Ousset does a very fine job on this with conductor Simon Rattle, who also catches the jazz feeling in the orchestration particularly well.

I’m sure that lovers of mushy performances will just drool over it, however, particularly the second movement which Dumont makes sound like Pavane for a Dead Princess. I couldn’t help but wonder if Slatkin chose his soloist or if someone at the record label foistered Dumont on him. When you consider all the pianists out there who could play this with much more a jazz feel—JoAnn McGregor, Simone Dinnerstein, Vijay Iyer or Bruce Wolosoff—one wonders why Mr. Stuffy French Dude was chosen. Possibly to mollify those who want Correct French Style in this music, which clearly doesn’t call for it. Sorry if it seems as if I’m picking on Dumont, but for crying out loud, guy, listen to some Hines or Tatum, will you?!?

Ironically, the Tzigane for violin and orchestra goes much better, in part due to Slatkin but also due to the wonderfully enlivened playing of soloist Jennifer Gilbert. But of course, this is not a score that calls for any jazz feeling. The Concerto for Left Hand is played in a fine, smoldering style by both Dumont and Slatkin, but this, too, is not really a jazz-influenced concerto. It’s much more in the traditionally French impressionist style, thus what they do here works pretty well. By the way, although much is made of Paul Wittgenstein and his losing an arm in World War I and all that, he was a pretty lousy pianist. Ravel hated the way he played the music and said so, to his face, and his lone recorded performance of the work (available for free streaming on YouTube) shows just how terrible he was, making mistakes all over the place in addition to getting the feel of the music wrong.

Slatkin’s accents and phrasing here are quite good, however, giving real stature and some needed energy to the music, and as I said, I can accept Dumont’s playing in this work for what it is.

A mixed review, then. The second and third works are fine; the first, not so much.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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