Summary for the Busy Executive: About fifty percent there.
I love Ravel's piano music as well as admire it. Years ago, a friend of mine learning Gaspard de la nuit pointed out the technical hurdles, and they weren't the finger-flashy stuff, rather the quieter moments. The opening to Gaspard's "Scarbo," for example, with those fast repeated notes at legato and soft dynamic, has given pianists more fits than many a piano concerto. One looks at just about any Ravel score to discover music that on the page looks quite odd and to the ear sounds perfectly right.
For me, Ravel is above all a composer of clear ideas and outline, even when he invokes the ghost of Liszt in Gaspard. I tend to prefer performers who give me that. Ms. Lowy does not. Her touch sounds like her fingers have turned to oatmeal, and she has an unfortunate tendency to take rubatos that, as far as I can tell, have no structural point to them. Her line very often lacks a pulse. I should say that I first heard these works en masse from the old Vox Box of Vlado Perlemuter (later from Casadesus and Fevrier), a pianist who gets short shrift in Benjamin Ivry's informative liner notes. Perlemuter's Ravel glitters with nervous energy, which Ivry deplores and I like, even though I'm open to other interpretations. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that the violation of clarity of the moment and of the whole tends to vitiate certain accounts, like Lowy's.
The Sonatine, for example, lacks precision of attack in the quick sections of the "Modere" and a certain weight in the slow sections. The rubatos are way overdone, probably in the name of Interpretation, with a capital I. Ravel himself once said (later echoed by Stravinsky): "I hate to have my music interpreted: it suffices merely to play it." Sometimes you can get away with this stuff in Debussy, but not in Ravel. Debussy often deals in subtle shifts of mood, well-suited to rubato. Ravel, on the other hand, deals in sharp outlines. Someone once beautifully compared Debussy's piano music to the night sky and Ravel's to a single star. Alfred Cortot wrote that "Where Debussy would have described the sensations caused by viewing an object, Ravel describes the object itself." The Sonatine is, to me, a revolutionary piece, as well as a very beautiful one. I have to go back to eighteenth-century keyboard music to find something so free of schmutz and schmaltz. Lowy, who has also recorded a hunk of Mozart, should have recognized this.
I pretty much write off the first disc of this two-CD set, which includes: Gaspard, the Menuet sur le nom d' Haydn, Valses nobles et sentimentales, and the Sonatine. There's a nice, though not outstanding Miroirs (with Jeux d'eau, Ravel's most Debussy-like piece) and, despite a couple of stumbles at low dynamic, a very good Le tombeau de Couperin. I particularly like Lowy's playing of the fugue, notoriously difficult for keeping the voices from dissolving into syrup (was it this movement that Marguerite Long omitted from her performances?). For me, this is the highpoint of Lowy's set. The Pavane pour une infante defunte, on the other hand, shows Lowy at her worst – soft, smudgy edges, dripping with sentimentality, with the musical line subjected to a rather predictable taffy-pull. It's a sad state of affairs when you can predict how a player will finish a phrase by the first few notes of the start. However, she ends with a strong Menuet antique.
The recorded sound seems dull to me. This doesn't help, and this set costs almost $40. When you can get Casadesus for about $20 and Perlemuter's Vox set for around $10, it makes little sense to pony up the premium for an overall bland performance.
Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz