Gramophone Awards Shortlist 2016
much for the Lyric Pieces in this country before anyone bothered with them greatly. The wonders of YouTube had me hooked on sampling the composer’s own piano rolls as well as some delectable examples of Sviatoslav Richter.
Stephen Hough is up there with the best; may we never take his excellence for granted. In weight of expression he is often lighter than the great Russians, Gilels making all 20 that he plays so personal whereas Hough’s detachment – it’s a small thing – is also telling in its way, the detail and overview consistently in balance. His virtuosity, polish, control of nuance and a huge range of dynamics are lovely to have. The piano is a Yamaha, for a change, a high-end product which sometimes shouted a bit, I thought, in fortissimo, and it’s a fine recording made just a year ago at St George’s, Brandon Hill. Stephen Plaistow
Ravel Complete Works for Solo Piano Bertrand Chamayou pf Erato S b 2564 60268-1 (137’ • DDD)
Bertrand Chamayou from Toulouse has been called a prince of pianists, a hyperbolic claim, some might argue, for a musician still in his early thirties. Yet his galvanic Liszt E flat Concerto was the first using historical instruments (Ambroisie, 11/12), his Années de pèlerinage is among a handful of the finest on record (Naïve, 3/12), and both were preceded in 2006 by a stunning set of Transcendental Etudes (Vogue). His disc of Mendelssohn’s solo music is the most compelling in recent memory (Naïve, 10/08), while recordings of Schubert (Erato, 5/14) and Franck (Naïve, 9/10) are as distinctive as his collaboration with cellist Sol Gabetta in Chopin (Sony Clasical, 6/15). Up until now, however, Chamayou has recorded little of those mainstays of French pianists, Ravel and Debussy. I, for one, had no idea what was in store.
Here, in some of the 20th century’s most familiar and beloved piano music, are revelatory performances of breathtaking beauty and incomparable power. Most striking, perhaps, is their unforced naturalness. Never waylaid by wealth of detail and opulent texture, Ravel’s harmonic movement is given singularity of purpose. Everything flows with the inevitability of speech, precisely articulated, direct and unmistakably sincere. Pedal is used with the utmost tact, enveloping appropriate passages in a shimmering aura that serves to heighten contour and colour. At the root of each piece is infallible rhythm, from whence branch and flower lilting pulses and a living, breathing rubato.
The large sets, Miroirs, Valses nobles et sentimentales, Gaspard de la nuit and Le tombeau de Couperin, dazzle in their variety and originality of concept and execution. They can also be unsettling. In Miroirs, to have been tossed about on waves in the brilliant sunlight and, still damp with ocean spray, to encounter a serenade by a jester whom you thought you knew but who turns out to be someone else entirely, only to end up in a misty valley with sound of distant bells emanating from seemingly every direction, is disconcerting. It’s also viscerally thrilling. In the Valses, the kinaesthetic intoxication of the ball is palpable, until you begin to feel that it’s all been a dream. The water pieces, Jeux d’eau, ‘Ondine’ and ‘Une barque sur l’océan’, are imbued with character as distinct from one another as the pools of Caillebotte, the ponds of Monet or the seas of Turner. This is accomplished with that calibre of virtuosity that leaves one unaware of anything but the music. The canonic works are rounded out by Siloti’s effective transcription of ‘Kaddisch’ from the Two Hebrew Melodies (1914) and Alfredo Casella’s A la manière de Ravel.
Superlative Ravel seems almost in abundance these days – think Bavouzet, Thibaudet, Queffélec or Lortie. But for my ears, Chamayou brings everything home in a way that is deeply personal, vivid, unique. No one who loves French music or exquisite piano-playing will want to miss this. Patrick Rucker
Ysaÿe Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op 27 Alina Ibragimova vn Hyperion F CDA67993 (68’ • DDD)
Alina Ibragimova has made many fine recordings in recent years, but this solo
Ysaÿe disc must count as one of her most memorable achievements. She gives full value to the sonatas’ varied expressive character, their virtuosity, and the imaginative and poetic way Ysaÿe wrote for his instrument. And she makes the music sound quite beautiful: we never feel the medium of unaccompanied violin is at all limiting; the sonatas speak to us unimpeded, without any sense of strain.
Ysaÿe composed the set in 1924, when his illustrious performing career was almost over. He dedicated each of the six to a different colleague among the fraternity of violinists, and we can follow their characteristics through the set – the First Sonata for Joseph Szigeti substantial and serious, and reflecting his prowess as a Bach interpreter; the Third Sonata commemorating the free, romantic style of Enescu, the Sixth Manuel Quiroga’s Spanish heritage, and so on. Ysaÿe sought in all six works to merge the Baroque tradition of solo violin-writing exemplified by Bach with the virtuoso styles of Paganini and Ernst, plus newer ways of writing of his own, leaning towards Impressionism.
At the start of the First Sonata (track 1) we notice Ibragimova’s deliberate, serious approach, characterised by strong dynamic contrasts and a powerful sense of line. The playing here communicates deep emotional involvement; and she’s equally successful in putting over the graceful, amabile character of the contrasting third movement (tr 3).
The Second Sonata, dedicated to Ysaÿe’s close friend Jacques Thibaud, might appear to contradict what we know of the latter’s easy-going nature and graceful playing, suggesting a darker side. The initial skittish quotation from Bach’s Third Partita for Solo Violin is set against obsessive repetitions of the ‘Dies irae’ chant, which continue throughout the sonata. Ibragimova is equally at home in the gentle, muted, melancholic second movement (tr 6) and the finale, ‘Les Furies’, which she attacks with extraordinary gusto (tr 8). Especially memorable here is the reintroduction of ‘Dies irae’ as a barely audible sul ponticello whisper (1’10”), contrasting with fiercely dissonant arpeggios. With the single-movement Third Sonata, she draws a convincing distinction between the opening in recitative style, done very freely and as though improvised, and the main theme, held at a firm tempo. As the sonata nears its final climax (tr 9, 7’01”), there’s a sense of throwing caution to the wind, accomplished without any loss of tonal quality.
The Fourth Sonata is dedicated to Fritz Kreisler, with more Bachian echoes, as well as a nod to Kreisler’s interest in reviving – or composing in imitation of – more obscure 18th-century composers, with movements entitled Allemande and Sarabande. The first of these has an extremely slow tempo marking, which Ibragimova treats with freedom, allowing the movement’s different facets to come together to make a satisfying narrative. And in the moto perpetuo finale she makes full use of the varied bow strokes indicated (a
28 GRAMOPHONE AWARDS 2016