How Great is Ravel?

Ravel: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 19.9.2013 (BJ)

Ravel: Alborada del gracioso
Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Rapsodie espagnole
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Piano Concerto in G major

There was a time, back in my unregenerate youth, when with the exception of perhaps three outstanding works I regarded Ravel as a composer not quite of the first rank. But then, over the years, other Ravel works were added, one by one, to that honored trio of the Left-Hand Concerto, La Valse, and L’Enfant et les sortilèges, until I reached the point a few years ago when I realized that my “approved” list had come to embrace practically his entire output.

I was thus delighted when Ludovic Morlot decided to begin his third subscription season as music director of the Seattle Symphony with an all-Ravel program. A one-composer program is an acid test for status in the first rank—and this sparkling evening resoundingly confirmed Ravel’s position in it.

There is much to be said for fresh ears. Since I had skipped the gala season-opener, to avoid hearing one of my unfavorite piano concertos—Prokofiev’s Third—played by one of my unfavorite pianists—Lang Lang—I was, on the evening in question, hearing an orchestra in the flesh for the first time in a few months, and the impact of the Seattle Symphony’s cultured and brilliant playing was immediately thrilling.

Alborada del gracioso was thrown off with an admirably light touch, yet with no lack of heft at appropriate moments. The standard thus set was maintained in thoroughly idiomatic performances of Rapsodie espagnole (which was one of the first works to join my original list of “approved” Ravel), the Pavane pour une infante défunte, and Boléro. And in among these there was the opportunity to hear both of the composer’s two piano concertos on the same program.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, like Morlot, is a splendid champion of this music, yet I found the performance of the G-major Concerto less than completely successful. It got off to a bad start, the pianist allowing his opening figurations to swell so far above the prescribed pianissimo dynamic as to render the piccolo’s forte tootling of the theme virtually inaudible. To tell the truth—or at least my version of the truth—if the first movement tended to fall apart, it was less the fault of the performers than of the composer: this is not one of Ravel’s best-designed movements, for the music’s high spirits fall victim to a more emotional episode that seems to me too predictive of the slow movement’s basic tone. That central Adagio assai, however, was played by soloist and orchestra alike with warm yet suitably chaste expression, and the circussy finale went with infectious zest.

The great Left-Hand Concerto, centerpiece of the concert’s first half, presented no problems either for the performers or for this particular listener. Thibaudet dug into the spectacularly challenging solo part with total commitment, and the dark hues that dominate the piece were realized to stunning effect, with a superbly nuanced statement of the main theme by contrabassoonist Mike Gamburg, and majestic playing by the whole orchestra at the single movement’s climax.

Bernard Jacobson