Recording the complete piano works of Ravel is a rite of passage for pianists, and it is no surprise given his interest in such other repertoire as Alkan, Scriabin, and Messiaen that Stephen Osborne has released a set onHyperion (CDA677312). This is of course a fairly risky venture: many of Ravel’s works are hair-raisingly difficult both technically and interpretatively, and any such ventures fall under the shadows of such legendary pianists as Robert Casedesus, Samson François, and Walter Gieseking. I am pleased to be able to report that Osborne’s set joins this company more than honorably; he rises to the challenge with readings as convincing and entrancing as one could wish for. He begins with a no-nonsense Ondine, lacking perhaps a little in vaporousness and rhythmic ebb and flow (rubato), especially at climaxes, but compensating with a tonal balance and clarity that highlights the piece’s technical brilliance. In contrast, he continues with a strikingly inexorable and shadowy Gibet, allowing only very restrained dynamics and yet giving an impressively even tonal weight to each pitch within the problematically big chords. I was slightly disappointed by his Scarbo, which was not precariously fast—the very best performances of this piece, by Bavouzet (MDG60411902) or Aimard (Warner 2564621602), have a precipitate threateningness—and temperamentally just not quite hysterical enough; one feels that Scarbo ought ideally to howl, and Osborne’s reading is a touch too elegant. Nonetheless, he achieves remarkable rhythmic distinctions within the terrifyingly rapid repeated patterns and his climaxes really register; quibbles aside, this is a very satisfying performance of Ravel’s pianistic magnum opus. Osborne next provides a brooding Sonatine, a work which is too often treated as a slightly soppy undergraduate workout; his first movement manages to find unsaccharine expressivity, while the Menuet too is nicely unsentimental, and the Finale absolutely sizzles. The first CD continues with a delectably fast and fluttery Noctuelles which sweeps-in a truly memorable reading of the Miroirs suite, culminating in an explosive version of the Alborada balanced by a haunted Vallée des Cloches. In case one thought all the excitement was over, Osborne chooses to end CD1 with the borderline unplayable solo piano transcription of la Valse, a demonstration of virtuosity that can reduce audiences to amazed jelly. Osborne explains in his liner notes that he edited the score prior to recording it in order to make sense out of what is essentially a rehearsal transcription, not a concert work. The results are simply superlative, and the set is worth having for this performance alone—the climax of Ravel’s unconformist piece was never more orgasmic than here.
The second CD contains all of Ravel’s smaller free-standing pieces, plus his final piano work, the Baroque-derived suite le Tombeau de Couperin, and his ostensible Schubert-homage Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, which despite their plural title strike the listener as effectively a single sustained arc of music. Here again Osborne brings out the marriage of immaculate taste and subterranean arch-sensitivity that characterises most of Ravel’s output. If you do not already own a complete Ravel piano music then this CD is ideal—and ideally priced—but even if you do, you will not regret the duplication. Highly recommended.