Top Ear

Chamayou’s “Complete” Ravel

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Jeremy Lee writes

First, some housekeeping.  This release is billed as Ravel’s Complete Works for Solo Piano, but what it actually contains is not an exhaustive shopping-list of absolutely all the music that Ravel wrote for solo piano (there are some early variations and fugues not included, for example).  Rather, like Angela Hewitt’s set on Hyperion (also billed as complete), it is a survey of his more popular solo piano music that also omits his piano transcriptions of his orchestral works.  Unlike Hewitt, however, Chamayou does include two bonus pieces:  Casella’s A la maniere de…Ravel, and Siloti’s transcription of Ravel’s Kaddisch.

With that out of the way, let us turn our attention to the music.  I have always thought of Bertrand Chamayou as one of the most intelligent and promising young pianists of our age, combining a solid technique with a keen ear for colour and attention to detail.  These qualities were very much present in his survey of Liszt’s Annees de Pelerinages (on Naive):  while it lacked the bel-canto singing quality and luminous touch of Lazar Berman’s classic version on DG, or the dignified authority of Bolet on Decca, Chamayou more than made up for it by being more attuned to the music’s coloristic possibilities, as well as trumping them in terms of sheer physical excitement.

An ear for color coupled with a splendid technique seems to be a match made in heaven for Ravel, and this is certainly true for the items that open Disc 1 in the recital.  Jeux d’Eau has an absolutely delightful sparkle to it, a function of Chamayou’s dazzling, transparent touch, and his meticulous judgment of pedalling and articulation also makes it one of the most playful and vivid accounts of the work I have heard–check out the bouncy, pedal-less rotary figures at 1:26, as well as the brilliance and sparkle that Chamayou imbues in the climax.  Alborada del Gracioso is similarly inspired:  the range of flavors and colours he gets from this warhorse invites comparison with not so much other rival piano versions (Richter, Lipatti, Perlemuter etc.) as the most imaginative of orchestral versions (in particular Boulez/BPO and Dohnanyi/Cleveland).  He invariably “gets” the sunny, tangy Basque flavor of the music and plays up these elements to the hilt.  The inimitable way he dispatches the rapid triplet figures in 0:14 and 1:20 evokes none other than castanets, while in the slow interlude Chamayou takes pains to maximise coloristic difference between the main melody in the tenor, the bass line, and the wonderfully muted chords in the alto and soprano registers.  You might have noticed how I used voice registers (SATB) to describe the music under Chamayou, therefore implying timbral differences in addition to that in pitch; indeed, this points to how vibrantly and intelligently Chamayou paints the music, as if he had under his fingers not a “box full of hammers and strings”, to quote Percy Grainger, but a full symphony orchestra.

So far, so good.  Now comes the “but”.  Given the inspiration of the two pieces discussed above, I approached his Gaspard de la Nuit with high expectations, expectations that were frustratingly unfulfilled.  Chamayou opens Ondine in a perfunctory manner that is both too loud and too foursquare, the opposite of what he claims to have achieved in the interview in the booklet (Michelangeli is inimitable here), and the movement pushes to a climax that is underwhelming.  Scarbo, too, lacks the demonic intensity and drive that propelled versions as diverse as Argerich, Pogorelich, Gavrilov, Francois and, to point out a recent version by a young pianist, Grosvenor.  The concentrated tone and timbral definition that he gets from Le Gibet is haunting, but viewed as a whole this Gaspard is not terribly special (admittedly very few Gaspards are truly special).

Another reservation concerns Chamayou’s tendency to play the slower pieces at a very brisk speed that, while not exactly insensitive, does tend to rob them of the atmosphere that we so cherished in the hands of Richter and Perlemuter, among others.  For example, Chamayou trades the sexy angularity of Argerich’s 6th movement of Valses Nobles et Sentimentales for a hyperactive breeze-through that I cannot really sympathise with, while his Pavane pour une infante defunte is rendered too quickly and too unemotionally for my taste.

To detail the rest of the pieces would take forever, but suffice it to say that the musical examples above are enough to illustrate Chamayou’s strengths and weaknesses as a Ravel interpreter.  Taken in totality, however, I find this survey of most of Ravel’s major piano works to be eminently recommendable, especially when compared to rival surveys.  More musically intelligent than Collard, more technically assured than Perlemuter, more reasonably priced than Hewitt, and better recorded than all of them (the near-perfect recording quality, at once luminous, airy and transparent, is certainly one of the best piano recordings in recent memory), this is one strong Ravel survey that deserves a place in any piano lover’s collection.


  • Album name:  Ravel:  Complete Works for Solo Piano
  • Performers:  Bertrand Chamayou (piano)
  • Label:  Erato 082564602681 (2CD)
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  2:17:01

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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