Verg. Discografieën





Noctural (bad) dreams as a piano triptych, intended to be the non plus ultra of romantic expression and technique


Some backgrounds


Magic and storytelling had large parts to play in Ravel's composing life. From his Shéhérazade overture of 1898 to his opera L'enfant et les sortilèges in the mid-1920's, his music shunned the everyday in favour of the exotic, fantastic and irrational both of time and place.

In Gaspard Ravel tackles the world of the Lisztian study in picturesque effect and virtuoso display. 

He wrote his three poems for piano, Gaspard de la nuit, between May and September 1908, and his friend Ricardo Viñes gave the first performance of them in Paris on January 9, 1909. Viñes, not only a brilliant pianist but a man of wide general culture, had also been responsible in the first place for drawing Ravel's attention to the prose poems on which the pieces are based, written by the otherwise little-known Aloysius Bertrand and published in 1836 with the subtitle 'fantasies in the manner of Rembrandt and Callot' (Callot was a seventeenth century engraver whose best-known works are Les misères de la guerre and Les tentations de St Antoine). Bertrand's Gaspard is a dreamer seeing fantastical visions of a variety that anticipates Edgar Allen Poe and Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann.

Bertrand explained the difference between the two artists as being between 'the white-bearded philosopher' (Rembrandt) and the 'loud-mouthed, loose-living jackanapes' (Callot), and something of this extreme contrast is to be found in Ravel's musical manifestations. If Le gibet is philosophical, Scarbo is certainly a jackanapes; as for Ondine, her jackanapery is more on seductive lines, but no less disruptive for that.

Most importantly for performers, each of the three pieces belongs to a different literary category: Ondine is narrative (Gaspard's encounter with a seductive freshwater mermaid), Le gibet a meditation (taking the image of a hanged corpse swinging from a gallows on the deserted outskirts of some town), Scarbo a multifaceted portrait (of a mischievous magician goblin who can take any number of disguises), almost a film documentary, and also a highly physical piece, at times approaching a circus act. So it makes sense to look at each of them in turn.




"Listen, listen…! It is I, Ondine, who scatter these drops of water on your tinkling window-pane, lit by the moon's pallid rays; and here is the lady of the castle in her iridescent gown, contemplating from her balcony the beauties of the starry night and the sleeping lake. Each drop is a water sprite, swimming with the current, each current is a path winding down to my palace, and my palace is built of water in the depths of the lake, in the triangle of fire, earth and air. Listen, listen…! My father beats the surrounding water with a branch of green willow, and my sisters with their arms of spray caress the islands of fresh grass, of water-lilies and gladioli, or mock the bent and bearded willow as it fishes in the stream."

In a low voice she begged me put her ring on my finger, to be the husband of a water-nymph and to come down with her to her palace as king of the lakes. And when I replied that I loved a mortal woman, she sulked in annoyance, cried a little and then with a burst of laughter vanished into a shower of dew which ran in white streaks along my blue window-panes.


Ravel here returned to the study of water and harked back to the textures of Jeux d'eau, but the figuration is now much more complex with crossing of hands and melodies often divided between them. He makes Ondine both seductive and mischievous and, although it is a mistake to try and follow the text as a literal programme throughout, we can possibly detect her tears and laughter in quick succession (an unaccompanied melody followed by wide arpeggios) and certainly her disappearance in the final chord is unmistakable.

Ravel told his friend Hélène Jourdan-Morhange that he didn't worry about the odd wrong note in this piece as long as the atmosphere was maintained. Easier said than done! The opening bars are by common consent one of the most treacherous passages in all piano music. They are the casement opening on to fairy lands forlorn and they must shimmer, in a watery but absolutely regular triple piano, giving no hint of their underlying rumba rhythm of 3+3+2.


The recordings


Twelve of the pianists known to me, Aimard, Argerich (she made two), Ashkenazy, El Bacha, Gieseking, Lortie, Michelangeli, Ousset, Perlemuter (he made two), Pogorelich, Rogé and Thibaudet have the control of key and colour to transport us into this insubstantial pageant.

Others (Helffer, Moguilevsky, Nojima) for example play unevenly, and really it's very hard, once this opportunity has been missed, to capture the magic at a later point. Others again (François, Okada, Pogorelich) lean meaningfully on the first note of the shimmer, depriving it of its necessary, instant impact. This shimmer also depends inevitably on the piano tone. Both Batagov and Ranki suffer from clangorous sound, Batagov's distant (the village hall through a partition), Ranki's all too upfront and aggressive. On this front I wouldn't recommend Michelangeli's 1987 live performance either.

Ravel complained, especially regarding Ondine, that players didn't make the crescendi large enough (Viñes added as a rider that they also tended to start them too early). Certainly he wanted them played where he wrote them and these places are by no means always where you would expect. A prime example comes in bar 21, where the apex of the crescendo does not come on the highest note of the phrase, but a beat later. You can hear the difference by first listening to Lortie, who is the only one of many players who misplace the climax (1'14"), and then to the Nimbus recording of Perlemuter, one of the very few who obey the score (1'13"; 1'17").

This may seem a small point, but it illustrates one of the crucial principles behind the structure of both Ondine and Scarbo: namely the interplay between the stable, relatively defined passages (which oblige the pianist to respect the letter of the score) and the music's unstable, more capricious elements.

Interestingly, as far as tempo goes, both pieces are extremely close in their proportions, with around 72% stable and 28% unstable. I believe most strongly that to introduce instability into a passage that Ravel marked as stable, or vice versa, is to traduce his carefully crafted structures.

This brings us to the old question of rubato in Ravel. No one is suggesting that you should make Ondine sound like a musical box (Perlemuter gave me once a hilarious imitation of Ravel imitating the 'high, stiff fingers' approach of some pianists at the start of Jeux d'eau). But stability there must be, where it is called for: and in Ravel that means wherever it is not specifically modified by a Cédez légèrement, or whatever.

I'm sorry to say that I reacted badly therefore to the opening pages of Ondine by Crossley, Ibanez, Krajny, Peebles and Pogorelich where the search for 'expressivity' works against the natural flow. One particular passage, beginning in bar 52, deserves to be highlighted, since for pianists (Argerich, Ashkenazy, François, Krajny) introduce a new, slower tempo here. I suspect Argerich's much praised 1974 performance may be to blame here (2'55" – 3'09") – magnificient, seductive playing, of course, but for me it is un unmotivated dreamy patch that breaks the narrative thread.

Ravel marks the tune here bien soutenu et expressif, which to me indicates that he wanted a change of colour and articulation rather than of tempo.

At the climax of the piece, where presumably the water nymph turns on the charm full blast, some players have to make a trade-off between power and cleanness of texture, even if Ravel does help a little with his Un peu plus lent. Ashkenazy, Casadesus, Entremont, Krajny, Lortie, Merlet, Nojima, O'Riley, Ousset, Rouvier and Thibaudet all prove that power and cleanness can coexist here, while Ashkenazy's sense of regret after the climax (Ondine failing in her bid to seduce the mortal man down to her submarine kingdom) is unmatched elsewhere. Argerich's technique allows her to ignore the Un peu plus lent; whether she takes advantage of this is another question.

To conclude this consideration of Ondine, three detailed points about the final pages after the climax. Firstly, the two glissandi, a white-note one followed by a black-note one. I get the impression many players (too many to name) are so relieved to get through the climax in one piece, that when they come to a white-note glissando which any seven-year-old can manage they automatically go 'whoosh!' with a great crescendo at the end. The briefest look at the score will show this is not what Ravel intended, the first being marked le plus p que possible, the second toujours ppp.  There are quite enough crescendi in these last three pages to keep pianists employed. And, incidentally, have pity on the poor Friedrich Gulda who, in the middle of the black-note glissando, faithfully follows the misprinted E natural of the Durand first edition, instead of Ravel's intended E sharp…..

Over the second point, Ravel, I have to admit, is at fault. Like some other composers, he was more careful about marking the application of the sustaining pedal than its release; so where to lift it after bar 83, where the fast figuration ends and Ondine makes her final, unaccompanied complaint? Believers in tradition will note that Casadesus and Perlemuter, both of whom studied Gaspard with the composer, lift the pedal either before or at the very start of her solo (as did another Ravel pupil, Jacques Février, whose version is not considered here). In this they are followed by a solid minority of the pianists reviewed here (Entremont, François, Gieseking, W. Haas, Ibanez, Merlet, Ousset, Pogorelich, Rogé, Rouvier, Thibaudet and Thiollier) who together suggest something of a French tradition over this question. It must remain a matter of personal choice, though myself I find a silence before Ondine's solo very telling since the narrative has been continuous up to this moment.

My final point is, again, small on the page but large in expressive effect. After her complaint, the 'rapid, brilliant' cadenza does not crash in fortissimi (pace Argerich, Gulda, Werner Haas and several others). Instead we have one of Ravel's very sudden crescendi, from triple piano to double forte. In a split second – as the mercurial Ondine vanishes in a shower of spray.


Le gibet


Ah! What is that I hear? Is it the howling of the night wind, or the sighs of the corpse that hangs from the gibbet? Or is it the song of a cricket hidden in the moss and the dead ivy with which the wood covers itself out of charity? Is it the hunting call of a fly, around those ears which are deaf to the sound of the kill? Or is it a cockchafer which in its wheeling flight plucks a bloody hair from the bald head? Or perhaps some spider weaving a length of muslin to decorate this strangled neck? It is the tolling of the bell that sounds from the walls of a town beyond the horizon, and the hanging corpse glows red in the setting sun.


The tolling of bells was almost a commonplace in French piano music before the First World War, but in Le gibet Ravel went further in the technical sense than, for example, Debussy had the previous year in Cloches à travers les feuilles (Viñes gave the first performance of the second book of Images  only three months before Ravel started Gaspard, and a spirit of emulation cannot be ruled out). The obsessive B flat bells toll in an icy, lunar landscape and sound throughout the piece, against an astonishing variety of textures and harmonies. The composer made at least two comments which all performers need to be aware of: that it must embrace monotony (Viñes refused to obey this diktat and was duly supplanted as Ravel's chosen interpreter); and that 'the bell does not dominate; it is, it tolls unwearingly.'

The problem of controlling the dynamic level of different strands here is even more acute for the performer than in Ondine. The bell must toll remorselessly throughout, with no change of tempo, regardless of what else the hands are called on to do. Also Ravel insisted that the overall effect should be monotonous although this has been disputed since Viñes.

Le gibet is, as I said above, a sinister meditation on death, such as occupied Ravel throughout his life at one level or another. A good performance should hypnotize us just as seductively as Ondine, though shorn of her coruscations. Since  it is in essence a negative piece, perhaps its demands can best be defined in terms of what interpreters should not do.

They should not introduce rubato (as do Crossley, Lortie and Pogorelich) since that necessarily disturbs the relentnessness of the bells; they should not let the pianissimo of the opening bells rise with the general level of dynamics (Argerich, Ashkenazy, Gulda, Nojima); as in Ondine they should not assume a traditional placing of crescendi when the score specifies otherwise (Ashkenazy, Entremont, Krajny, Pogorelich, Stott); and they should not succumb to the temptation of making any marked increase in dynamics in the second half of the piece, in which mezzo piano is the loudest indication (Argerich, Okada, Pogorelich, Ranki).

I would argue that Le gibet is about not only death but the inherent futility of life. While the red rays of the setting sun strike the corpse on the gibbet, the meditation begins and ends with the unfeeling bell. In between, climaxes wither unexpectedly – Argerich, Ousset, Perlemuter and Thibaudet are among the not so many interpreters to note the placing of the crescendi in bars 12-14, 17-19 and 35-37 (Argerich: 1'19"-1'35"; 1'53-2'07"; 4'16-4'31"), full of disenchantment and despair. The climax of the piece comes surprisingly early (bar 17 out of 52; Argerich: 1'53"), and the lack of any follow-up to this is again eloquent of Ravel's deliberate policy of non-attainment. A habit seems to be developing of introducing climaxes where the chords return (Argerich: 4'16") and, more pernicious still, on the last page, where an innocent mezzo piano  F flat is thumped out, very often echoed by a sudden burst of noise in the bass. No!

On the positive front, the few pianists who negotiate all these obstacles, playing exactly what is in the score, prove abundantly the truth of something I have already advocated: Ravel Knew Best. Merlet, Ousset, Rouvier and Thibaudet all give fine performances, Thibaudet's being especially bleak (listen to his wonderful rendering of the expressif marking in bars 6-11: 0'36"-1'26").

Perhaps the finest performance of all comes from Perlemuter in his later recording on Nimbus. Whatever one's reservations about the Nimbus sound, Perlemuter's control here is absolute, with sudden, large crescendi threatening to burst through the atmosphere of containment and not a whiff of rubato anywhere. Also he manages better than anyone to find that knife-edge of dynamics for his bells which means that they do not dominate, as Ravel requested, and yet they can be heard through the mezzo forte climax.

Finally a word needs to be said about the tempo of this piece. Perlemuter studied this piece with the composer in 1927 and in his copy of the score Le gibet has the tempo marking 'quaver = 69 (quaver = 72)'. Some ten years ago Perlemuter assured me that quaver = 69 was the tempo Ravel asked for, but couldn't remember where '(quaver = 72)' came from.

The slower speed, which Perlemuter adopts for both his recordings, gives a duration of 6'. The durations of the other four performances recommended above are: Ousset 6'10"; Rouvier 6'45"; Thibaudet 7'11"; Merlet 7'27". Of course, this may to some extent reflect my personal taste for slower performances of the piece, though I do think the other criteria for choice I've given above are fairly objective. Against that, too, is the fact that Casadesus, who also studied Gaspard with Ravel, gets through Le gibet in 5'05" and makes of it a memorable experience, albeit one in which the element of danger is fairly subdued.

The problem of tempo was well defined by Artur Pizarro after a splendid performance: too slow and you lose the line, too fast and it sounds superficial. The tempo range on the discs under review is large, from Gieseking (4'31") and Ashkenazy (4'46") at one end to Merlet (7'27") and N'Kaoua (7'36") at the other – a symmetrical variation about the 6' norm.

If you need to be a Gieseking or an Ashkenazy to make such fast tempos work (ad I feel that in their hands they do), N'Kaoua's wooden phrasing demonstrates the danger of going to the opposite extreme. And of course the carrying power of the instrument and the recording acoustic have to be taken into account. But all in all, observance of Ravel's markings – that is of his structure – makes such wide tempo variations at least possible.




Oh! How many times have I heard and seen Scarbo under the bright midnight moon, like a silver coin on an azure banner speckled with golden bees! How many times have I heard his laughter echoing in the shadows of my alcove, and his nails scraping on the silk curtains round my bed! How many times have I seen him drop from the ceiling, dance on one foot and flit round the room like the handle off a witch's broomstick! And just when I thought he had disappeared he would grow taller and taller till, like a cathedral spire, he blotted out the moonlight, a golden bell swinging from his pointes bonnet! Then his body would turn blue, and transparent like candle-wax, his face would grow pale like a candle-end… and in a moment he was gone.


After the total rhythmic stability of Le gibet, we return to the stable/unstable contrasts of Ondine, now presented far more starkly. If Ondine was unpredictable emotionally, Scarbo is unpredictable physically. We hear this 'Ariel with attitude' (or evil and terrifying gnome) laughing and agile pirouetting in the alcove, scraping his fingernails on the silk curtains, hurtling acrobattingly round the room, disappearing, reappearing, growing is size, turning first blue, then pale… and finally vanishing for good. Or until next time anyway. The piece is full of quasi-orchestral sounds and goes even further than Alborada del gracioso in the quick changes it demands between different finger techniques. 

Two further remarks by the composer need to be borne in mind by any aspiring executant. To his friend Maurice Delage he admitted: 'I wanted to write something harder than Balakirev's Islamey; and (to Perlemuter) 'I wanted to compose a caricature of Romanticism, but' (in a whisper) 'perhaps I let myself get carried away!'

I'm prompted to ask two questions. Whether or not Scarbo is harder than Islamey – and it must be a close thing – should it sound that hard? And should the pianist too get carried away? (Emotionally that is, rather than on a stretcher).

To the first I would answer that Scarbo must flash and burst like a firework and break violently into the meditative calm of Le gibet, but that at no point must this airy spirit seem to be struggling. Most of Scarbo is effectively a circus act. We are meant to gasp at the pyrotechnics, but they must work perfectly while the performer remains nonchalant – which answers my second question. As one who could never hope to play Scarbo drunk or sober, I will not be unkind enough to identify the strugglers on my list.

More than a few have emerged creditably so far, only to fall victim to the demands of repeated notes or finger-twisting traits. Speed, I'm sorry to say, is of the essence. An accurate Scarbo at a truly fast and dangerous-sounding vif will always have the edge over one that sounds ever so slightly careful.

The die is cast in bar 52, where the repeated notes begin. Ravel kindly asks for them to be just un peu marqué, but the very nature of the phrase and of its context means that 'très marqué' is barely 'marqué' enough, if the term is taken to mean 'striking' rather than merely 'loud'. Ashkenazy, Lortie, Merlet, Michelangeli in his 1987 performance, Nojima, Ousset, Pogorelich, Rogé, Rouvier and Thibaudet all impress, with the prizes perhaps going to Lortie (0'51"), Ashkenazy (1'20") and Thibaudet (0'50") – Lortie observing the pianissimo with marvellous delicacy, Ashkenazy and Thibaudet a touch louder, but still with a repressed urgency, warning us that this fantastical creature is capable of anything.

This leads to my belief that a good performance of Scarbo lives as much by what it portends as by what it actually says. And here we return to the question of the stable/instable contrasts. In Scarbo it's more than ever a mistake to make the stable unstable, because then the truly unstable has nothing to work off.

Take the very opening bars. Ravel gives no indication that the first three quavers in the bass should be played as anything other than quavers: Ousset, Perlemuter, Thibaudet and especially Merlet all grasp the point that this is a throw-away stable opening whose meaning is none the less deliberately ambiguous. It's a composer's tease, like the simple piano octaves at the start of Rachmaninov's Third Pianoconcerto. But so many pianists linger 'expressively' on the last quaver, ruining the contrast with the unstable, open-ended, thrumming tremolo that follows.

Another stable/unstable contrast should be felt between the notated bars and the various bars of silence in the piece. Again, many pianists obscure this contrast either by cutting the silences short or by pedalling through them. One of the most telling of these silences comes in bars 70-72, just after the repeated notes have, apparently, got under way. Admittedly, the stability of the notated bars (51-69) is relative since they consist of two seven-bar phrases followed by a five-bar one. But the sudden three-bar rest, I would argue, produces the most disturbing effect of all, as Scarbo vanishes behind the curtains – when will he reappear, and in what guise? Psychologically, these bars are not silent at all, but replete with bewilderment and terror. Or they should be. Argerich, Casadesus, El Bacha, Krajny, Lortie, Merlet, Michelangeli, Pogorelich and Thibaudet all give full value to this silence and draw due dividends.

As a final detail in the stable versus unstable question, I choose a longish passage (bars 418-477) at the start of which, for once, Ravel doesn't seem to have got his tempo relations quite right. The older generation of pianists in general manages this better than the younger ones. Listen to Gieseking in his 1938 recording, for example, (5'06"-6'20") and how, first, he begins the tempo modulation during the low, growley bars where it can't really be heard, so that the new, stable tempo is in place in time for the repeated-note tune; and then how, in the notorious passage in major seconds, he starts the unstable accelerando where Ravel indicates it, and then grades it beautifully so that by the end of this extract the music is again riding at full tilt. And at the beginning of the major seconds (5'57"), he does not insert a vulgar thwack on the left hand D natural, as so many younger pianists are doing. Why must they? All it does is signal 'Now this is me playing major seconds. Aren't I good?' Not much to do with music.


New recordings


Thus was the phonographic situation 04-06-2007. Since then many new recordings arrived. By way of an update ‘light’ here some commentary on them:

Aimard has a special stature as a French pianist with Ravel in his blood. He takes Ravel’s remark ‘you needn’t interpret my music, just play it’ to heart. Well, the result here should have pleased the composer. The playing is totally focused, attentive to text, scrupulously controlled in sound and movement, the articulation of the continuity as Ravel insisted it should be. No otiose slowings, nothing imposed only revealed. A feast of the highest intellectual and technical/musical order.

The American trained Chen was winner of the ‘crystal award’ (= third prize) at the Texan Van Cliburn competition 2005. He doesn’t make a very good impression, for instance with his frenzied chase through the many pianissimo demands of Scarbo.

After his start as a child prodigy and giving his first recital at 14 in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw it remained long silent  apart from some appearances round Tiempo (with or without Karin Lechner). In  his presentation we recognize the wise advice of his mentor Argerich. Strange though that in Le gibet (at 3’18”) he plays after an unwarranted sforzando chord fortissimo which is rather perverse. Does that disqualify him enough?

The results that Pizarro produce in his Linn recording are too uneven despite some flashes of imagination and delicacy to make a deep impression.

A lot worse is the very self-willed Barto who as a young pianist already mostly raised very negative reviews. He makes a ruin of Ravel, spiced with misreadings (1’42” in Ondine, for example). In Le gibet are anomalies (espressif becomes rubato) and a too fast Scarbo ends in confusion.

A much better impression leaves Kempf. Were it not for some disappointments – alack of rhetoric or broadening at the climax of Ondine and the regular negotiation of dynamic markings in Scarbo he migt have ended higher in the appreciation list.

When in French pianist Descharmes made his recording he was 29 and promising. He only lacks the last ounce of exact articulation, drama and imaginative daring he would have been better disposed.

Another French pianist, Bavouzet, fares much better. His pellucid playing results in a somewhat cool, distanced, slowly but intensively burning Gaspard.

Too uneven and only blessed with fleeting moments of great brilliance is the rather uneven debut of Ursuleasa. Ondine and Le gibet are treated rather slowly and too careful; at no moment Scarbo becomes threatening, but she shows rhythmic flair. 

To start with Frascone has the handicap of a not optimal studio sound not honouring the essential dynamic contrasts. But apart from that: her Gaspard in no sense compete with the benchmarks. Her Ondine and Scarbo do sound more like etudes than symphonic poems in miniature. Le gibet is better, more atmospheric.

Too typical English gentlemanlike is Osborne sounding. Technically he is very able, but it’s the expression that is too small scale.

For the time last but not least comes the debut of Grosvenor. His Ravel is very characterful and virtuosic, but he still has to grow in his style.


Arrangement Constant


And there is the arrangement by Marius Constant for speaker, piano and orchestra, as it turns out a deceitful concept with interleaved recitations of the Aloysius Bertrand poems. Why try to do better than Ravel, who was such a perfect orchestrator? Leaving moral questions aside, we find an almost entirely piece of work, spoilt only by moments of doubtful balance. For instance the bells in Le gibet are not loud enough. Ravel insisted “they toll unwearingly”. Here they vanish in long stretches. Add to this inaccuracies of ensemble, a not so ideal piano soloist and the result is not even a real competitor on an over filled market in spite of its special form.


Summary from 2007


The demands of Gaspard de la nuit are very considerable: in Ondine seductive tone and an ability to tell the tale; in Le gibet, total control over dynamics and articulation; in Scarbo, prestidigation, a whiff of brimstone, and clean, instant cutting between one facet of the portrait and the next – between one camera angle and another. And throughout the work, a realisation of what is stable and what unstable.

Despite its overall authority, and many beautiful moments, Casadesus's performance can sound a little cool and both he, Perlemuter and Gieseking drop the occasional spinning plate in Scarbo (be warned that Gieseking's live 1948 performance on Dante is a horror which surely should have been tactfully forgotten).

Why is Jean-Philippe Collard not in the front ranks here as he is arguably the greatest French pianist of his generation? His Ravel playing never falls below distinction and he shows for example a beautiful sense of line in Ondine, though it must be admitted that the right-hand ostinato is far from the pianopianissimo which Ravel marks; in the other movements he is less impressive.

Paul Crossley is playing in an aristocratic way with an admirable feeling for tone-colour and line and rarely mannered.

With Louis Lortie  especially Le gibet has a chilling and atmospheric character. No quarrels either with Anne Quefellec's playing, which is alert, intelligent and vital, as one would expect from so excellent a stylist. There are some masterly and very enjoyable moments, but it is all far too closely observed, as if one were in the front row of the concert hall; as a result not all the atmosphere registers to full effect, once the dynamics rise above mf. Much the same goes for the even more scholastic Désiré N'Kaoua. 

With Gordon Fergus-Thompson one misses the concentration and the keyboard control that so distinguishes for example Thibaudet. Here one enters a different imaginative world with an ample and rich colour-palette, mingled with considerable personality and imagination.

Pascal Rogé expresses Gaspard with classic restraint, elegance and economy, an ideal absence of artifice or idiosyncrasy. He knows exactly where to allow asperity to relax into lyricism and vice versa, and time and again he finds that elusive, cool centre at the heart of Ravel's teeming and luxuriant vision. Only the more Lisztian spirit fails where he gives in to laissez-faire. Scarbo for example is not menacing and high-flying virtuosic enough, although he re-creates Ravel's noctural mystery well. Even if one misses a touch of cruelty behind Ondine's entreaty, few pianists can have evoked the watery realm with greater transparency.

Lortie and Rouvier also give a lot of pleasure, Rouvier's Scarbo being one of the very best, with plenty of really quiet playing, which Ravel liked.

From the 'runners-up' one should appreciate especially Merlet and Ousset (both typically French!).

I have no doubt that Argerich on DG plays exactly the notes she wants to, as she wants them, and that her imagination is always fully engaged. But despite the breathtaking élan of the final pages of Scarbo, too much detail falls by the wayside. Nevertheless: she always has a warm place in my heart and I always return eagerly to her interpretation.

Not surprisingly that also goes for her 1978 'live' recording from the Amsterdam Concertgebouw where I happened to be present. Here her Gaspard is an astonishing four minutes faster than her by no means sedate DG recording from three years earlier (18'09" as against 22'21"). In expression it is polarised towards demonic flair and abandon, in a way scarcely imaginable under studio conditions. She takes a lot of risk! Ondine flickers ravishingly and improvisatorily, but the latter stages feel more like wild-water rafting than the contemplation of a seductive water-nymph, and the big climax at 3'18" won't stand close scrutinity. On the other hand Le gibet is as effective in its restraint as in its hallucinatory colourings – the passage from 2'23" is truly pp sans expression. Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of horripilating malevolence in Scarbo. The final stages have to be heard to be believed. The very welcome documentation of an unforgettable event.

 Pogorelich's Gaspard also is out of the ordinary. In Le gibet, we are made conscious of the pianist's refinement of tone and colour first, and Ravel's poetic vision afterwards. But for all that, this is piano playing of astonishing quality. The control of colour and nuance in Scarbo is dazzling and its eruptive cascades of energy and dramatic fire have one sitting on the edge of one's seat.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet's collected Ravel has won golden opinions, for this is quite outstanding playing on all counts; Thibaudet exhibits flawless technique, perfect control, refinement of touch and exemplary taste. He always distils just the right atmosphere.




Overviewing the total number of interpretations that  are available in January 2010, who are the ones to go for? How did the preferences change? Well, surely in some respects. While these preferences for the aforementioned pianists remains, some of them are distancing themselves to the background. Added now are especially Aimard (my personal hero) and to a lesser degree Bavouzet.

To restrict the long list to the superior and most interesting performances, Aimard, Argerich (EMI), Rogé, Thibaudet and on the border Pogorelich remain in the end as the great favourites. 


Some timings

Ondine Le gibet Scarbo

Casadesus 5'54" 5'05" 9'14"

Ashkenazy 6'31" 5'11" 9'43"

Argerich DG 6'19" 6'42" 9'14"

Rogé 6'23" 6'34" 8'23"

Argerich EMI 5'16" 4'53" 8'00"

Perlemuter 6'30" 6'15" 9'01"

Pogorelich 7'18" 6'48" 9'22"

N'Kaoua 6'55" 7'39" 9'43"

Thibaudet 6'26" 7'12" 8'31"




1937. Walter Gieseking. Pearl GEMMCD 9449, Philips 456.790-2 (2 cd's), EMI 265081-2 (8 cd’s).


1948. Walter Gieseking. Dante HPC 139 .


1951. Robert Casadesus. Sony 63316 (2 cd's).


1953. Friedrich Gulda. Philips 456.817-2 (2 cd's). 


1955. Vlado Perlemuter. Vox CDX 25507 (2 cd's). 


1957. Leonard Pennario. MSR Archives MS 1188 (4 cd’s).


1959. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Philips 456.901-2 (2 cd's). 


1960. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Memory 999001 (4 cd's), Musidisc CD 955, Multisonic 31093-2. 


1964. Werner Haas. Philips 438.353-2 (2 cd's).


1965. Vladimir Ashkenazy. Philips 456.715-2 (2 cd's).


1967. Samson François. EMI 566.905-2, 747.368-2.


1970. Claude Helffer. Harmonia Mundi HMA 190.922.


1971. Cécile Ousset. Berlin Classics BR 2125-2. 


1974. Philippe Entremont. Sony 53528 (2 cd's).


1974. Pascal Rogé. Decca 440.836-2 (2 cd's). 


1974. Jacques Rouvier. Calliope CAL 9824/5 (2 cd's). 


1974. Martha Argerich. DG 419.062-2, 453.576-2 (4 cd's), 447.438-2, Philips 456.700-2 (2 cd's). 


1978. Martha Argerich. EMI 557.101-2.


1979. Vlado Perlemuter. Nimbus NI 5005. 


1980. Jean-Philippe Collard. EMI 572.376-2.


1983. Ivo Pogorelich. DG 413.363-2, 459.045-2 (2 cd's), 459.070-2 (11 cd's). 


1984. Paul Crossley. CRD 3383/4 (2 cd's).


1984. Deszo Ranki. Hungaroton HCD 512.317. 


1987.  Krajny. Supraphon 11.1476-2 (2 cd's).


1987. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Aura Music AUR 204-2.


1987. Anton Batagow. Liebermann SLR 0005, Arbiter 102.


1989. Louis Lortie. Chandos CHAN 8647, 7004/5 (2 cd's).


1989. Christopher O'Riley. Albany TROY 052-2. 


1990. Minoru Nojima. Reference RRCD 35.


1990.  Kathryn Stott. Conifer 75605-51755-2 (2 cd's), CRD 3384, 4083/5 (3 cd's). 


1991. Merlet. Mandala 4807/8 (2 cd's).


1992. Anne Queffelec. Virgin 759.322-2, 561.489-2 (2 cd's). 


1992. Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Decca 433.515-2 (2 cd's). 


1992. Gordon Fergus-Thomson. ASV CDDCA 805.


1992. Jevgeny Moguilevsky. Pavane 507.277.


1994. Patrick ( ?) N'Kaoua. Solstice SOCD 122/3 (2 cd's).


1994. Abdel Rahman El Bacha. Forlane UCD 16737.


1994. Boris Berezowsky. Teldec 4509-84539-2.


1995. Yoshiko Okada. Ongaku 024-106.


1995. François-Joël Thiollier. Naxos 8553.008.


1996. Arto Satukangas. Finlandia 0630-17695-2. 


1997. Cécile Licad. Music Masters 67172-2.


2000. Naida Cole. Decca 748.021-2.


2001. Hanna Shybayeva. Philips 465.455-2. 


2003. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. MDG 604.1190-2 (2 cd’s).


2003. Angela Hewitt. Hyperion CDA 67341/2 (2 cd’s).


2004. Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Warner 2564-62160-2.


2005. Sa Chen. Harmonia Mundi HMU 90.7406.


2005. Sergio Tiempo. EMI 558.018-2.


2006. Artur Pizarro. Linn CKD 290.


2006. Tzimon Barto. Ondine ODE 1095-2.


2007. Freddy Kempf. BIS SACD 1580.


2008. Romain Descharmes. Audite AUDITE 92571.


2009.  Mihaela Ursuleasa. Berlin Classics BC 1654-2.


2010. Marylin Frascone. Integral Classic INT 221.168.


2010. Steven Osborne. Hyperion CDA 67731/2 (2 cd’s).


2010. Benjamin Grosvenor. Decca 478.3206.


Arrangement Marius Constant


2004. Carole Bouquet (narrator), Tzimon Barto (p), Orchestre de Paris, Christoph Eschenbach. Ondine ODE 1051-2.


Unknown recording date


.….. Sarah Cahill. Musik Welt NA 096.

….. Michelangelo Carbonara. Brilliant Classics 94083 (2 cd’s). 

….. Homero Francesch. Tudor CD 781.

….. Andrei Gavrilov. EMI 569.869-2, 252.331-2.

….. Erika Haase. Liebermann Gutenberg 205.

….. Monique Haas. Erato 4509-84826-2 (2 cd's).

…..  Ibanez. Rem Editions REM 311141.

….. Klára Körmendi. Naxos 8550.254.

….. Vladimir Krainev. Chant Du Monde K 488.049.

..… Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. MW MA 955, Vox CDX 999.105.

….. Alicia de Larrocha. Sony 64350.

….. Konstantin Lifschitz. Denon CO 78908.

….. Vilaty Margulis. In-Akustik HHMM 39811-2.

….. Karl-Hermann Mrongovius. Wergo CD 60.140-50.

….. Yukie Nagai. BIS CD 666.

….. Kun Woo Paik. Musik Welt DA PSG 9123/4 (2 cd's).

….. Anthony Peebles. Meridian CDE 84207.

….. Andrew Rangell. DORIAN 94176.

….. Schwarz-Herion. FCD 97226.

….. Hüseyin Sermet. Naïve V 4755.

….. Rodney Waters Liebermann TP 108.

….. Margrit-Julia Zimmermann. Thorofon CTH 2152.




2007. Jorge Luis Prats. Video Artists VAIDVD 4414 (dvd).