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CD Review

Piano Concertos from France

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Montréal Symphony Orchestra/Charles Dutoit
London 452448-2 60:22
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Killjoys.

It took the French a while to produce a really great piano concerto. The Saint-Saëns cycle is at least credible and represents a giant step up from what went on before, and composers like d' Indy, Franck, Hahn, and Massenet produced charming divertissements. Debussy's early Fantaisie probably is the best of these, but one can't really say it comes from Debussy's top drawer. It took until Ravel's two masterpieces before the French had something one could mention in the same breath as, say, the Brahmses or the Schumann - not that Ravel is the same kind of composer, although I certainly believe him at Brahms' level. Nevertheless, Ravel produced supreme examples of a certain musical viewpoint - one most of us think of as quintessentially French - as Brahms produced supreme examples of the German symphonic approach to the concerto. It represents a philosophical difference more than a technical difference. A composer like Brahms essentially seeks God through music. Every emotion gets ramped up. The highs are empyrean; the quiet is intensely meditative. Brahms always courts the danger of going over the top, of pretentious inflation, and indeed many of his extensive revisions of early works aim to rein in this impulse. Ravel seeks the sensuously beautiful, the rapture one feels in the presence of "sensuous form" while simultaneously maintaining a sense of balance. There's a slight distance rather than an heroic identification - as if the stance itself becomes an emulation of the beauty one feels. In many ways, Brahms and Ravel's approaches differ as the German and French view of classical Greece differ. The German feels the power the ancient forms generate - Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles - while the Frenchman feels the perfection of those forms in themselves - the Elgin marbles, the architecture. If the German risks pomposity, the Frenchman risks superficiality.

I think the comparison to Brahms even more instructive when we look at the differences in the piano concertos of both men. To me, Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand is to Brahms' d-minor as his Concerto in G is to Brahms' B Flat Major. That is, the left-hand concerto and the d-minor are, to use Nietzsche's distinction, "Dionysian," while the G-major and the Brahms B Flat Major are "Apollonian." Ravel's left-hand concerto, like Brahms' d-minor, flirts with the id (without succumbing) while the G-major and the B Flat Major are ensigns of the superego, with so much psychic balance that leaning over the edge poses little danger of actually falling in.

You'd think that two French guys would have an inside track on this music, but (in the words of John Belushi) nooo-o-o-o. I have no idea what on earth has happened to Charles Dutoit. In his early days, he would have been a natural. His early performances are airy and bright (I think especially of a marvelous account of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream music). Lately, however, everything he touches turns to lead. The opening to the left-hand concerto plods, and with the exception of Thibaudet's opening to the allegro, everything drags. Marginally better, the G-major concerto is nothing to write home about either. The Montréal players attack with all the vim of a Nyquil addict and don't seem willing to get to the next note. Ensemble's pretty ragged as well. And the tone! They sound so dull they might as well be playing behind a heavy curtain. The radiant slow movement grinds along and refuses to shine.

The same lethargy attacks them in the Françaix and the Honegger, but it matters less there. The music doesn't pretend to anything more than a good time. The Honegger, a rare example of the composer in his Les Six mode (not all that apparent even when the group was together), is a cheeky thing, very evocative of Satie. I've enjoyed the piece immensely in its Vox/Turnabout LP incarnation. Perhaps it's available from the Vox website. As far as I know, this is the only alternative to Dutoit and Thibaudet. The Françaix is a classic of its kind. See if you can find the Doráti recording with the composer's son as soloist.

Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz