Van Raat Plays French Piano Rarities

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DEBUSSY: Étude retrouvée. Les Soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon. MESSIAEN: Morceau de lecture à vue. Des canyons aux étoiles (excerpts). La Fauvette passerinette. BOULEZ: Prélude, Toccata e Scherzo. 12 Notations. Une page d’éphéméride. RAVEL: Menuet in c# min. / Ralph van Raat, pno / Naxos 8.57394

Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat, whose work I have praised in the past, focuses much of his repertoire on 20th and 21st-century composers, which is all to the good. He also has very good taste, which means that what he plays is normally quite interesting and not the average modern piece which may or may not convey anything.

In this new collection from Naxos, he focuses on what he calls “piano rarities.” This certainly applies to those works that weren’t discovered until after the composers’ deaths, Debussy’s Les Soirs illumines par l’aredue du charbon and Messiaen’s Morceau de lecture à vue and La Fauvette passerinette, but Debussy’s Étude tertouvée isn’t really that rare and Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles is only rare in live performance, as there are several recordings of the entire piece. Pierre Boulez’ pieces are rarities, both in performance and on recordings, largely because the music is abrasive and unappealing except to the most diehard lover of modern sounds.

Van Raat’s Debussy performances have much in common with those of Michael Korstick in that they are straightforward in both tempo and touch. Not for him the sometimes over-fussy dynamics of such French pianists as Thibaudet and Bavouzet, at least not in the Étude, and I think this is the right decision. If you listen to the recordings that Debussy made of his own music, he had a touch than ranged from delicate to powerful but he didn’t fuss around with the dynamics and phrasing nearly as much as those who followed in his footsteps (but not Alfred Cortot, who played Debussy much the same way the composer played it). He certainly plays atmospherically in Les Soirs illumines although, to my ears, this is a surprisingly uninteresting piece. It may even have been nothing more than a sketch that he never intended to be played or published.

Messiaen’s Morceau de lecture was written in 1934 as a test-piece for his piano pupils. Its value is that it contains the theme he later used for Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus. It’s slow, atmospheric, but not really developed at all—another throwaway piece. To be honest, I was rather disappointed by van Raat’s performances of the excerpts from Des canyons aux étoiles, which sounded a bit stiff and prosaic to me, as if he were sight-reading the music and hadn’t had time to absorb it. His playing here is no match for that of Martin Helmchen on Alpha. La Fauvette passerinette, only discovered in 2012, is an excellent piece depicting the Subalpine Warbler and his interactions with other birds, one of his own species as well as with a Nightingale, Bee-eater, Golden Orioles and Great Spotted Cockatoos, but you’d have to be a real bird fancier to be able to identify their calls in his work. Here I felt that van Raat entered into the spirit of fun that Messiaen had with this piece while writing it way back in 1961. Why ne never published it remains a mystery.

Boulez’ massive, 27-minute Prelude, Toccata and Fugue from 1944, when he was only 19 years old, is the centerpiece of this album, and this is its first recording. Typically forbidding, somewhat gritty and very Germanic-sounding, it is nonetheless one of Boulez’ best pieces because the themes are clear and their development coherent. To a certain extent, I hear this as much if not more as an organ piece. The Toccata, the longest of the three sections at10:25, is wonderful with its bouncy rhythm and sparkling chromatic right-hand keyboard runs with a slower interlude in the middle. The Fugue opens with sharp, staccato atonal chords played in an irregular meter with small spaces between them. This motif is then developed by Boulez before moving into the fugue proper at the 53-second mark, albeit still with staccato chord interruptions. Interestingly, Boulez also includes a slow section in this, too, with more space between the notes and chords. The music then becomes quite rhythmically complex: without having the score to look at, I’d guess that Boulez changed meter fairly often in this fugue, and the staccato chords continue to come and go.

The problem is, the 12 Notations sounded to me as if they used similar material—so similar, in fact, that while the first piece was playing I thought it was a continuation of the previous fugue. Another problem is that the imaginative juxtapositions of sections in differing tempi noted in the longer piece are used in exactly the same way in these shorter pieces. Apparently, Boulez used the Prelude, Toccata et Fugue as a model for most of his piano works, and it’s just too similar. This is the mark of a clever composer whose work is entirely cerebral and has no real inspiration. (An unkinder way of putting it would be “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”) Une page d’éphéméride, written in 2005, is more of the same.

We close this recital with the little one-minute Ravel Menuet, scribbled on the back of a student’s music in 1904. It is a surprisingly nice, charming piece, well crafted despite its hurried genesis—a perfect example of inspiration over mechanics.

Overall, then, a good album but not a really great one, although the Boulez Prelude etc. is worth checking out.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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