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Twofer Pianos, Revealing Ravel

Ravel: Compared Elaine Greenfield, piano. Navona 6401 Disc One: Total Time: 65:08 Disc Two: Total: 63:13 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****

Pianists tend to have their preferences for the make of instrument that they like to perform on and for the average person the difference between a Steinway and a Yamaha might be rather negligible, but they are indeed easy to discern. Some of this has to also do with the response of the keys, how the pedal devices react, and the way the soundboard itself adds color. String tension, size, and a host of other things can contribute to the way an instrument sounds. This is important to understand to a certain degree for this unique recording by pianist Elaine Greenfield. While fans of 20th-Century music tend to focus often on interpretation of new work and schools of aesthetic performance of this music, they often do not think about the possibilities of what we would call “period instrument” practice. For this Navona release, Greenfield presents a parallel program of music by Maurice Ravel covering his most familiar piano music. The difference comes in what she has chosen to play the music on.

Disc one uses an 1893 piano by Erard of Paris. Ravel had the same instrument in his studio and we are invited to thus imagine these works be created on this instrument. It is parallel-strung which means that rather than having the bass strings run across the frame, they are parallel to the other strings. The instrument also features an iron frame. The result is that the lower strings can be longer and this would cause them to vibrate in different ways equally effected by the sustain pedal. Some refer to this as adding a “liquid clarity” to the sound. In practice, one will hear a clear articulation of pitches, but there is more a blending of the harmony as well that comes through most in slower music. The upper register has a sparkling quality that aids this music as well. In the performance of the Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte (1899) one can acclimate themselves to the sound of the instrument as it opens each disc. There is spot where a pedaling hiccup occurs here which inadvertently reveals the challenge of the instrument. Greenfield’s performances though are excellent. The shimmering quality she brings out in the Sonatine (1903-05) are stunning and in the faster passage work, that harmonic support of the music is enhanced by the Erard quite well. Also included are two movements from Miroirs (“Oiseaux tristes” and “Alborada del gracioso”), the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, Gaspard de La Nuit, and the “Toccata” from Le Tombeau de Couperin. The music needs to be taken often a slightly slower pace to bring out the colors of the harmonies given the response and sound of the instrument. Some will find this adds to a deeper appreciation of what Ravel’s music is really about. Greenfield makes a great case for that in this recording that captures the sound of the instrument quite well.

An American instrument is used for comparison on disc two. The Ivers and Pond instrument from the Boston manufactures dates from 1917. The company was noted for the more lavish woods used to construct the cabinets with a sound quality to rival that of Steinway. The company unfortunately did not survive the Great Depression. In this traversal of the same repertoire, we get a glimpse of the sound of the piano in this part of the century. The instrument has a rich tone quality and also allows for great clarity of articulation. This may also be why some tempos can move a little more as well. It is a parlor concert grand so it also provides a blend of intimacy but can fill a space more than the Erard’s capacity.

Fortunately, Greenfield’s performances are thoughtful and immersed in the approaches of French impressionist piano style (hinted at by an earlier release of Debussy).

As one listens to her performances, we are transported back to this period in often exquisite fashion. Since each disc is a repeated program, the best way to really hear the differences is to actually switch back and forth between them. That allows for a more immediate acknowledgment of what she has achieved and gives us a glimpse at how a performer must tailor their interpretation to fit the instrument they are using. The program itself is equally impressive with fine interpretations of each of these pieces that can stand along one’s personal preferences. Those who’ve explored recordings made by pianists who knew Ravel or Debussy will find that Greenfield has somehow managed to encapsulate that approach well and her choices aid in a refreshing new take on this repertoire. In some ways, disc one gives a view of the “French” Ravel, while disc two is sort of a “modern” view with an instrument that is perhaps more in alignment with what American audiences are more familiar with, and yet her approach still honors the style of the music with beautiful results. The set is a must for any student of piano performance or those interested in Impressionist music.


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