At Tanglewood, an ambitious and stirring survey of Ravel

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (shown in New York) is playing the music of Ravel at Tanglewood this week. Jean-Yves Thibaudet (shown in New York) is playing the music of Ravel at Tanglewood this week. (Jennifer Taylor for The New York Times/File)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / July 21, 2011

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LENOX - The piano music of Maurice Ravel, jewels in both the lapidary and watchmaking senses, has long accessorized recitals; to gather all of it in one place, as pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet is doing over three programs this week at Tanglewood, feels almost like a heist.

(Thibaudet’s survey continues tonight, and then on Sunday afternoon, performing both of Ravel’s piano concertos with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.) Last night’s opener collected works commenting on music’s past; like the Galerie d’Apollon, the repository of those French crown jewels that managed to survive revolutions and tumult, these were treasures with memories.

In Ravel’s early-career, 1895 “Menuet antique,’’ a brittle version of that vintage dance undercuts nostalgia while a smooth, dreamy trio acknowledges its allure; but in the 1909 “Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn,’’ Ravel pays the older master the compliment of a thoughtful, personal evocation. Thibaudet gave the “Menuet antique’’ a touch of asperity - limpid phrases tartly clipped off - echoed in the angular, youthfully impish “Sérénade grotesque.’’ But the later minuet, along with the equally distilled 1913 “Prélude,’’ had a more forthright elegance (as did Thibaudet’s non-Ravel encore, Chopin’s op. 9 no. 2 Nocturne).

Past and (Ravel’s) present mingled in a pair of expert impressions. “À la manière de Borodine’’ plays it straight, a deft Franco-Russian waltz. But “À la manière de Chabrier’’ works mischief on Gounod, the older generation, saucily updating an aria from “Faust’’ into the hazy manner of Chabrier, Ravel’s early inspiration.

In “Miroirs,’’ completed in 1905, Ravel’s own finely bedecked style comes into full bloom. Ravel turns the piano’s essential discontinuity, its discrete hammer-on-string impacts, against itself, conjuring flow with a density of attacks, cutting so many facets into the music that the angles converge on long arcs. “Miroirs,’’ each movement dedicated to a fellow young artist, is saturated with such effusive challenge.

Thibaudet’s approach was fleet, restrained, transparent. Intricacies were realized with astonishingly even rapidity and lightness, the facets still sharp; the chain of melody was distinct and lustrous, the virtuosity seeming to glitter in the reflected light of the larger structure, an insouciance of exceptionally fluent understatement. But in “Le Tombeau de Couperin,’’ the movements now dedicated to friends lost to the First World War, while the virtuosity still coursed (Thibaudet dispatched the “Prélude’’ with blistering speed), the provocations are sobered by the symmetries and repetitions of Baroque forms. This “Menuet’’ was gentle but obsessively ornamented; the “Forlane’’ chased its tail with eerily even richness. Thibaudet finally unleashed untrammeled power in the “Toccata,’’ rage so fiercely articulate as to border on exuberance. In the soul of Thibaudet’s discretion, Ravel’s unsentimental precision encircled both confidence and grief.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at


Ravel: Complete Piano Music

At: Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, last night (continues tonight and Sunday)