Ravel: Concertos & Melodies (CD review)

Piano Concerto in G major; Don Quiehotte a Dulcinee; Deux Melodies hebraiques; Pavane pour une infante defunte; Trois Poems de Stephane Mallarme; Concerto for the Left Hand in D major; Sainte. Cedric Tiberghien, piano; Stephane Degout, baritone; Francois-Xavier Roth, Les Siecles. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902612.

By John J. Puccio

Although we’ve had quite a few recordings of French composer Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) music over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever heard one quite like this. The difference is in this recording’s use of original instruments. First, the French classical pianist Cedric Tiberghien, who takes the solo parts, uses a Pleyel piano from 1892, an instrument on which Ravel’s music might well have been played in his lifetime. Second, Francois-Xavier Roth leads his period-instrument band Les Siecles (“The Centuries”) in as historically accurate performance as possible. It helps, too, of course, that these are splendid interpretations of the material, making for a good time all the way around.

The album contains two longer works, the Piano Concerto in G major and the Concerto for the Left Hand in D major. In addition, there are five shorter works, chief among them the Pavane pour une infante defunte. So, let’s take a look at them one by one.

The program beings with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, which the composer wrote was 1931. It came about as a clear result of George Gershwin's music having persuaded him to inject some American jazz into his own scores. This connection is evident early on in the concerto, but, as we might have expected, Ravel added his own suggestions of dreamy, Romantic impressionism to the mix. It is certainly one of Ravel's most-imaginative works, full of jazzy bustle one moment and a tender grace the next, and unless the pianist is careful, the piece can appear as merely a series of clamorous rants and fanciful gestures. In my book, nothing has beaten the recording Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli left us (EMI/Warner), but with pianist Tiberghien, the music is still magical.

The old Pleyel piano may not be quite as rich or mellow as today’s Steinways, but it generates a glowing presence, and Tiberghien coaxes some persuasively seductive sounds from it. He’s particularly good in the quiet, languid parts, where his delicate touch enhances almost every note. This extends especially to the quiet Adagio assai (“very slowly”), where the central movement has never sounded so eloquent or graceful, tinged as it is with hints of dissonance. And for a change, the Presto finale doesn’t appear as just noise for noise sake but, instead, is as playful as Ravel I’m sure intended.

Next are two shorter works, the song cycle Don Quichote a Dulcinee (“Don Quixote and Dulcinea”), in three brief dance movements, and the Deus Melodies hebriques (“Two Hebrew Songs”) in two brief movements. These are well sung by baritone Stephane Degout and provide a welcome interlude before we get to the more-famous Pavane pour une defune (“Pavane for a dead princess”), which Tiberghien plays with a flowing poise and power. That’s followed by another vocal interlude of three poems by Stephane Mallarme.

Then comes the Concerto for the Left Hand, which Ravel wrote in 1929-30 for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I and commissioned a number of works for the left hand alone. The Concerto contains an assortment of different sections, but they’re present in a single movement. It is not as frisky or airy as the Concerto in G but, in fact, seems starker, weightier, sometimes sterner. Still, Tiberghien never overemphasizes the more severe or more martial elements of the score, concentrating instead on its insistent rhythms and mysterious, often dramatic ambience.

The disc ends with the song Sainte (1896), again based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, which concludes things in a somewhat solemn but cogent tone.

Producer and engineer Jiri Heger recorded the music at the Grande salle Pierre Boulez and Le Studio, Philharmonie de Paris, France, December 2020 and September 2021. The sound Mr. Heger produces is among the best I’ve heard. It’s extremely well detailed, as transparent as it can be, with a good depth of field and stereo spread. Dynamics and impact are fine as well, creating a realistic realization of the music.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura’s hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
The reader will find Classical Candor's Mission Statement, Staff Profiles, and contact information (classicalcandor@gmail.com) toward the bottom of each page.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Writer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet DAC/preamp/crossover, Tandberg 2016A and Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa