Saturday, May 23, 2020

Pianist Ralph Van Raat’s French Rarities

courtesy of Naxos of America

Yesterday Naxos released its latest album of solo piano music performed by Ralph van Raat. The pianist has had an exclusive contract with Naxos since 2006, having begun with a release of the complete piano works by John Adams. The title of the new album is French Piano Rarities, and the track listing almost reads like a recital program.

That overall program is framed by the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. The two Debussy rarities, “Étude retrouvée” (recovered étude) and “Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon” (evenings lit buy the burning coals), whose title is taken from a line in Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Le balcon” (the balcony), were both written near the end of the composer’s life. At the other end the album concludes with a minuet composed by Maurice Ravel in 1904 but not published until long after his death, when an editor identified only as “Guifré” (apparently based in Barcelona) prepared a PDF upload to IMSLP.

Between these “bookends” van Raat presented what amounted to a teacher-student offering with selections first by Olivier Messiaen and then by Pierre Boulez. To be fair, the only Messiaen composition that predates Boulez’ first encounter with him as a teacher is a brief sight-reading exercise composed in 1934, whose theme would later reappear as the “Thème de l’amour mystique” (theme of mystical love), which serves as one of the leitmotifs of Messiaen’s mammoth suite Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus (twenty aspects of the child Jesus). The other three selections are the results of Messiaen’s musical interpretations of bird songs, two of which were composed as solo piano movements in another major suite, Des Canyons aux étoiles… (from the canyons to the stars), composed for large orchestra.

The major selection by Boulez is his 1945 collection of twelve haiku-like compositions for solo piano entitled Notations. This is preceded by the world premiere recording of an earlier (1944) student effort, three solo piano movements following the relatively traditional structural forms of prelude, toccata (with fugue), and scherzo. The final Boulez selection was composed late in his life In 2005, “Une page d’ephéméride” (a calendar page). Given the friendship that a much younger Boulez had formed with John Cage, I have to wonder whether van Raat may have deliberately taken four minutes and 33 seconds to perform this piece.

If this was, indeed, the structure of a recital program, I have to say that I am just as glad that I did not have to sit through it. Considered in its entirely, this album serves up music with dauntingly high “information content” (in Claude Shannon’s mathematical sense of that phrase). For example, when Messiaen worked on a large scale, as he did in both the Vingt Regards and Des Canyons aux étoiles…, he knew how to guide the listener through his own relationships between foreground and background. Consequently, those two piano solos that van Raat recorded were intended as cadenzas in the overall plan of Des Canyons. Taken out of context, they are little more than jaw-dropping instances of prodigious technical skill, ideal for a competition but not so much in a concert setting.

Mind you, there is much to recommend any individual track on this new album; but, for the most part, any single track is best appreciated in isolation from all of the other tracks.

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