Ravel: Compared - Giacometti

Ravel: Compared - Giacometti

Channel Classics  CCS SA 31612 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental

Ravel: Sonatine, Gaspard de la Nuit, Menuet Antique, Le Tombeau de Couperin

Paolo Giacometti

This recording raised the same question as all previous ones: should I use an authentic or a modern piano? At home I have a Steinway, on which I learnt to play, and it is a wonderful instrument. When I was about twenty I was fortunate enough to get to know authentic instruments: romantic grand pianos by Érard and Pleyel and older ones by Graf, Streicher etc. This was a new world of timbres and expressive potential. Naturally, I took the inspiration and revelations provided by these instruments to the modern grand piano. A stimulating cross fertilisation of expressive and interpretative possibilities was the result. In this way it became increasingly natural for me to play the same repertoire on both old and new instruments.

In my desire to share this fascinating cross fertilisation with others, I found the answer to the above question: a double CD with the same works on authentic and new instruments. This is particularly interesting in the case of Ravel, since the two types of instrument not only existed in his lifetime, but were actually used by him. The ‘new’ instrument used for the recording is a Steinway. ‘New’ is in inverted commas because the Steinway grand has hardly changed since the late nineteenth century. The authentic instrument on this CD is an Érard – one of the most celebrated makers of the nineteenth century, and immortalised by Liszt. Ravel frequently gave his recitals on a Steinway, while at home he used an Érard when composing. The different tonal worlds of the two instruments result primarily from the parallel stringing and largely wooden frame of the Érard, and the cross-stringing and steel frame (to accommodate the higher tension of the strings and case) of the Steinway.

The sound of the Érard is thus more stringy and dies away differently, while the various registers are more individual. The Steinway glories in the resonance of the strings and case, and the mélange of the notes. Since relationships between the immense richness of colour and timbre in Ravel’s music are therefore different, this is naturally of influence on the interpretative choices made by the performer. The pedalling, dynamic transitions, balance between the parts, harmonic colours, build-up of tension, tempos – all these must be approached differently depending on the instrument used. This is clearest of all in relation to tempos: none of the recorded pieces
have the same length on the two CDs.

For a musician and pianist this is an inevitable, inspiring, instructive, and in particular a delightful experience in the process of developing one’s interpretation. I sincerely hope that you will enjoy precisely this aspect of the project as much as I do.

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DSD recording

DSD Recording:
Deventer, Holland, September 2010 (Érard)
Schiedam, Holland, September 2011 (Steinway)
Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - November 18, 2012

Concert pianist Paolo Giacometti discovered early in his career that playing on period pianos revealed many otherwise hidden secrets of a composer's means and meaning. This knowledge and practical experience helped him to adapt his playing to the usual Steinway Model D concert pianos so as to be as true as possible to the composer. Sometimes playing fortepianos for his own recitals as well as Steinways, he also uses period pianos for teaching. His students reported a similar enlightenment when they played on period pianos, and were quite excited to go back to the Steinway and find ways of incorporating their new knowledge. As Giacometti describes it in the insert notes: "a stimulating cross-fertilisation of interpretative possibilities was the result".

This 2 disc digipak contains an experimental attempt to allow a listener to discover what it is that makes a pianist take a decision on whether to play a piece on a period or modern instrument. Ravel was chosen for this project, as it is known that he used an Érard piano (dated around 1901) at his home when writing, but often used a Steinway when playing concerts. In order to illustrate the difference between these pianos, Giacometti and Channel Classics have produced two discs with the same set of Ravel pieces on each, one made with an Érard of 1881 (straight-stringed, mostly wooden frame), the other with a model D Steinway (cross-stringed, iron frame). Hence the title of this issue; one can compare the different timbres and effects of each piano on the style of playing.

Ravel's writing strongly reflects the Érard pianos that were his norm. Besides their lighter, shallower touch (which facilitated lightly repeated notes and chords as well as magical glissandi), a quality which is rare now is the distinct colour of each register. Like a choir which also has different registers (soprano, alto, tenor & bass) the same regions on a straight-stringed Érard also have different timbres. The lower end has a clear, percussive sound, mimicking a bass drum. The top strings are carillon-like, allowing bells and triangle effects. In the mid-range, several counter melodies can clearly be heard amidst a busy background of notes, an effect which Ravel used a lot; these melodic lines have to be purposely brought out on a Steinway otherwise they are not noticed.

Another advantage of the single strings and their purity of tone is that experienced pianists can hear when the vibration of the string changes as it starts to decay, allowing time to prepare and adjust the way to strike the next note, something not possible on Steinways. This allows delicate and expressive nuancing of phrases. Pedalling, too, is very different between the two piano species. Ravel was always encouraging his pupils to play like Mozart, and the Érard produces that purity of sound and clarity of articulation best. Hence Ravel's penchant for writing passages with many rapidly repeated notes or three-note chords. Listen to the opening of Ondine from Gaspard de La Nuit on the Érard first, then swap to the Bechstein disc and see if you can hear a difference. Ravel uses many dissonant sevenths or seconds, and the spicy scrunches these chords make register more pungently on the Érard.

Giacometti is not the first to record with an Érard. Pianist Gwendoline Mok was introduced to the Érard by her teacher, Vlado Perlemuter (d. 2002), probably the last pupil of Ravel himself. She went through the same process of discovery as Giacometti after playing on Ravel's own piano, and later recorded the composer's complete piano works on a restored Érard of 1875. Ray Dudley in 1992 produced a mixed recital of Ravel (Gaspard de la Nuit), Chopin and Liszt on an 1878 Érard (RBCD). Latterly, Clair Chevalier, under the baton of Jos van Immerseele, recorded Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (RBCD). Giacometti's project now harnesses the fine acoustic detail available from SACD, allowing the listener to hear the pros and cons of each piano for themselves - a fine example of involving the audience in a recorded adventure.

What of Giacometti's interpretation of Ravel on these discs? I compared each piece with recordings by some of the most applauded performers. Angela Hewitt's previous repertoire included Baroque music and the piano works of Chabrier, which equips her very well for Ravel, since he adored music from the Baroque to the early Classical period and Chabrier was the composer he was most influenced by (not Liszt as commonly held). Vlado Perlemuter studied all Ravel's music with the composer and was a consummate interpreter himself. Louis Lortie is a master at blending poetry and flawless technique. I would place these musicians with some others in the "mainstream" of Ravel interpreters. This is not to forget Martha Argerich and Jacques Thibaud, both superlative players but who use more personalised approaches. On this basis, Giacametti is well able to be considered as a very fine Ravel interpreter.

Many listeners rightly regard the masterpiece Gaspard de la Nuit as a litmus test for a good Ravel player. This piece has garnered a set of myths and legends of its own, for its remarkable originality and staggering technical difficulty. Ravel (himself not a very good pianist) was somewhat jealous of Mussorgsky's 'Islamy' which had the reputation of being the most difficult piano piece, and he determined to usurp this.

Inspiration for the new piece came from prose-poetry which was more or less invented by Aloysius Bertrand. The three poems which sparked the musical version of Gaspard de la Nuit are crucial to the performance as much as they were to Ravel's composition. He insisted that they always be printed at the head of each the three component settings in publication, and he would admonish any student who had not read them assiduously. Most pianists today are (or should be) at least aware of the poems, since they are the essence of the music, not merely indications of atmosphere and mood. Most listeners today, including those listening to recordings, are not made aware of the poems, and so a culture of misinterpretation has grown up, particular with the last piece, Scarbo, which has been turned into a Gothic Horror story. One critic from the printed media wrote about a pianist's allegedly feeble performance of Scarbo that if it didn't give you goosebumps then it was a poor performance. He got no goosebumps, and thus commended the pianist.

There are some performances which go out of control in terms of the interpretation not following the poem, producing a transcendental version which certainly could bring an audience to its feet. Martha Argerich has produced a recording of Scarbo which is pianistically so brilliant that it seems almost impossible. We have to ask, is this in or out of control? Bertrand's and Ravel's Scarbo character appears in nearly all of the Gaspard poems, which has many more items than the three which Ravel chose to set. Scarbo is seen as a leering gnome or dwarf, a laughing gargoyle. He is mischievous like the German's Till Eulenspiegel character musically depicted by Richard Strauss, but also manages to frighten the onlooker by seeming to grow "as high as the moon". This is Romantic fear, a frisson akin to that obtained from a fair-ground ride - Scarbo is not the devil and does not have the devil's power. It's a pity that the three poems which go with Ravel's scores weren't included in the booklet notes for the 3-fold digipak, so that listeners would have a better basis for appreciation of Gaspard, one of the greatest works for piano - be it Érard or Steinway. However, some good translations can be found on the internet.

Recording the two pianos with such different power ratios must have required many decisions to be made. The Érard is recorded with Channel's usual church acoustic but close enough not to blur its clarity with undue resonance. I have to admit to being captivated by it immediately, it just seemed so "right" for Ravel's music. The Steinway, capable of much more output even at p and pp levels (these are always relative) was given a larger acoustic and more distance from the listener, as if in a normal recital situation. Bringing up the volume enhanced its resonance and colour to a very plausible Steinway representation. Ravel's rapid single note repetitions somehow gathered a patina or haze from the slower decay of the three-string Steinway, and the loss of the registral colours was notable. However, the richness and softer note-generation lent a succulent "impressionistic" character for melodic lines, and the instrument's sheer power made the climaxes very effective.

An enterprising issue from Channel Classics and Giacometti, giving at once an excellent Ravel compilation and a fascinating opportunity to learn much about the two pianos and how they affect a pianist's performances. Since players report that they enjoy playing both of the pianos, they, and we, have the best of both worlds. Hopefully, a further similar pair of discs will complete the full set of Ravel's wonderful, challenging piano works, giving us some more work to do if the two disc format is retained.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and