Italian sisters Natascia and Raffaella Gazzana deliver a sensitively performed survey of French music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, alongside a nod to modern Hungarian composer György Ligeti. They place Franck’s monumental Sonata in A Major at the heart of their program, its second movement Allegro blazing with passion, the final Allegretto beautifully restrained yet unleashed in the closing bars. Ravel’s Sonate Posthume is a fascinating document of a 22-year-old composer’s development, in thrall to early Impressionism, while Messiaen’s equally youthful “Thème et Variations,” played with sparkling clarity and poise, shows a composer ahead of his time. Ligeti’s direct musical language functions almost as a refreshing sorbet among the French riches.
This stunning and generous collection belongs right at the top of the heap in its respective repertoire. The Debussy is still a comparative rarity in concert if not on disc, a remarkable fact given that it's wholly gorgeous from first note to last. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's excellence as a Debussy pianist already has been acknowledged by just about everyone who has heard him, and needs no further advertisement here. The performance is outstanding, sensitive to every nuance, but also very French in its clear-eyed sensibility and understanding that focused rhythm and supple tempos prevent the music from turning excessively sentimental or blandly pretty. And in Tortelier, Bavouzet has a conductor who seconds him every step of the way. A similar sensibility informs these swift, razor-sharp, and utterly thrilling accounts of the two Ravel concertos. That for the left hand seldom has sounded so exciting, or in its jazzy central march section, so sinister. Listen to the bite that both soloist and orchestra bring to that descending scale theme, and notice the way Bavouzet shapes his cadenza so as to preserve the illusion of multiple parts played by multiple hands–all without slowing down at the tough passages. It's really an amazing performance by any standard. Even the dark opening, often merely murky on other recordings, has shape and urgency, the buildup to the initial entry of the piano creating incredible tension.
First released in 1984 and reissued in 2001, this disc featuring the Alban Berg Quartet's recordings of the string quartets of Debussy and Ravel, as well as Stravinsky's Three Pieces, Concertino, and Double Canon for string quartet should never be out of the catalog. The Alban Berg Quartet is not necessarily the first group one would think of for this repertoire, but the performances here are consistently impressive, if somewhat uncharacteristic.