Ravel Piano Concertos / Debussy / Massenet
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
9/10

It is not a particularly recent release, I’ll grant you, but I keep returning to this hybrid SACD of the great pianist Jean-Efflem Bavouzet playing both the Ravel G major and Left-Hand Piano Concertos. Previously, I had regarded the Zimerman/Boulez recordings (DG: 4492132—released January ‘99) of these two works as the stand-out available versions, and when DG announced a new release of the pieces with Boulez again, but this time one of my favourite Ravel pianists, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, as soloist (DG: 4778770—released Oct ‘10) like all serious Ravel fanciers I got quite excited. In the event, the Aimard CD was not quite as remarkable as had been expected: excellent but not epoch-making was the general consensus.

In all the fanfare centred round the DG disc, I failed even to register the Chandos release with Bavouzet that came out in November 2010, partly because the Ravel works are sandwiched between the early Debussy Fantasie, which I had always regarded as a bit grey, and some Massenet piano pieces. Having finally noticed that the Ravel Concertos were unostentatiously included in the package I gave this disc a listen—and was astounded. The Bavouzet performances of the Ravel works are as scintillating, well-judged, and exquisitely recorded as any I have ever heard, and this recording of the Debussy reveals it as one of those slow-burner works that gradually and firmly win one’s affections. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Yan Pascal Tortelier are not quite the premium band that Boulez can summon (for this repertoire he uses the Cleveland Orchestra mainly) but they still excel in the brilliantly orchestrated music, giving a particularly joyous reading of the fake-folkiness of the G Major Concerto. And there’s more: the fifteen minutes of solo piano music by Massenet that concludes the CD which could so easily have come across as fatuous encoring in fact succeeds as a wonderful coup de théâtre, completely confounding expectations. In all, this is one of the most delightful CDs of the last twelve months, and I exhort all lovers of French music to give it a listen.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.