High Voltage Virtuosity and Cultivated Musicianship from Bertrand Chamayou

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel:  Bertrand Chamayou (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 23.10.2015 (RB)

Pavane pour une infante défunte

Jeux d’eau


Gaspard de la nuit

Valses nobles et sentimentales

Le tombeau de Couperin


Bertrand Chamayou has won widespread critical acclaim for his recordings of Mendelssohn, Franck and Liszt.  Earlier this year he released a recording of Schubert’s piano works to much acclaim and he now seems to have shifted his attention to Ravel.  In this recital he performed a selection of Ravel’s piano works in the chronological order in which they were written.

The recital opened with Ravel’s perennially popular Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899).  Chamayou showed us his ability to make the piano sing and brought a tenderness and stately quality to Ravel’s exquisite melody.  He gave us some gorgeous, subtle shifts of tone colour together with an impressive control of dynamics.  We moved from the stately Pavane to the glistening water music of Jeux d’eau – this work clearly owes a debt to Liszt’s Les jeux d’eau à la Villa D’Este which Chamayou has already recorded to much acclaim.  Chamayou showed us his virtuoso credentials in this piece together with extraordinary control of touch and timbre.  I was particularly impressed with his astonishing digital dexterity and his ability to move from rippling fountains to soft grained splashes and cascading droplets of water.

From Jeux d’eau we moved to the neo-Classical world of Sonatine which Ravel wrote between 1903-05.  Chamayou brought considerable Gallic charm to the opening movement together with elegant shaping of the line and a firm sense of structure.  The central Menuet was stylish and refined with Chamayou giving us some beautifully poised playing and artful rubato.  The final movement (marked Animé) was an astonishing piece of playing:  Chamayou brought a whirling momentum to the arpeggio figurations and he appeared to relish the brilliance of the piano writing.  The playing was clean, precise and rhythmically incisive and Chamayou offered an impressive range of textures.

The first half concluded with Ravel’s three romantic poems of transcendental virtuosity – Gaspard de la nuit – which were written in 1908 and based on poems by Aloysius Bertrand.  This is one of the pinnacles of the piano repertoire and there have been some exceptional performances by artists such as Michelangeli and Argerich.  Like all great exponents of Gaspard, Chamayou was on top of the enormous technical demands while at the same time probing the poetic multi-layered nuances of the piece.  The shimmering right hand demi-semiquavers of Ondine were beautifully controlled and Chamayou deployed the pedal sparingly to create a luminous hypnotic effect.  The sadness and tenderness of the water nymph were conveyed well although I would have liked to hear more of the dangerous seductive allure of Ondine.  The final section where we hear tears and mocking laughter before Ondine vanishes in the ripples of the lake was conveyed brilliantly.  In Le Gibet Chamayou conjured up the dark colours of the macabre scene and brought an edginess and intensity to the music while maintaining a strong sense of line.  He projected the mood and atmosphere of the piece well while the tolling B flats echoed menacingly in the background.  Chamayou’s performance of Scarbo was one of the fastest and most athletic pieces of piano playing I have ever heard.  I noticed a few very minor inaccuracies but I would much rather have Chamayou give us unbridled playing like than take the piece at a safer tempo.  He did a superb job in depicting the shape-shifting and darting movements of the malevolent Scarbo around the room and the technical execution of the section in rising seconds was particularly impressive.  I wondered if there might be scope to bring more weight and depth of tone at the climaxes to the piece.  The final flickering and extinction of Scarbo in a puff of smoke was realised perfectly.

The second half of the concert opened with Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911).  Ravel referred to the piece as having “a style that is simpler and clearer, in which the harmony is harder”.  The chain of waltzes was brilliantly characterised and stylishly played by Chamayou.  The opening waltz had enormous vigour and flair while the second had a probing contemplative feel. The third waltz was playful and teasing while the fourth had a mercurial, quicksilver quality.  I enjoyed the skittish sense of parody which Chamayou brought to the sixth waltz before he conjured up all the glitter and glamour of the ballroom in the penultimate waltz.  The epilogue with its spectral echoes of all the previous waltzes was very refined and the fragments and wisps of melody were woven together beautifully.

The concert concluded with Le Tombeau de Couperin which Ravel started writing at the beginning of the First World War in 1914 and completed in 1917.  The movements are based on those of the traditional Baroque suite and each of the movements is dedicated to friends of the composer who died fighting in World War 1.  The opening Prelude was a brilliant piece of playing with Chamayou giving us some artful shaping of the whirling lines and stylish execution of the decoration.  The Fugue had a dreamy poetic feel and Chamayou offered some delicate shifts in tone colour – I felt the voicing could perhaps have been clearer in this piece.  The Forlane had a nicely understated satirical edge and I liked the very clean and rhythmically incisive way Chamayou approached the piece. The Rigaudon had bustle and momentum while the Menuet had an exquisite tonal sheen.  The final Toccata is a technically demanding work and it is dedicated to the husband of Marguerite Long.  Fittingly, it was Long who gave the first performance of Le Tombeau de Couperin.  Chamayou dispatched the work with virtuoso aplomb bringing the recital to a thrilling conclusion.

We heard a number of encores, including a scintillating account of Alborado del gracioso.  Overall, Chamayou brought a perfect blend of high voltage virtuosity and cultivated musicianship to this recital – superb stuff!

Robert Beattie

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