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Claude Debussy: Images (Séries I & II)
Maurice Ravel: Sonatine – Gaspard de la nuit
Heinz Holliger: Elis: Drei Nachtsctücke
Arthur Honegger: Hommage à Ravel

Gilles Vonsattel (Piano)
Recorded at the Banff Centre (October 2010) – 69’48
Honens ref. # 201103CD – Booklet note in English and French

Swiss-American pianist Gilles Vonsattel was one of the Laureates of the 2009 Honens International Competition. Laureates not only receive a cash prize; recitals are scheduled and a recording is issued on the competition’s own label.

This recording starts brilliantly with a crystalline performance of Ravel’s ravishing Sonatine. It then moves into darker territory, with Claude Debussy’s two series of Images, a total of six pieces lasting almost 30 minutes. The pianist’s thoughtful, searching attitude brings out the varying moods. The performance compares very favourably with a widely-praised 2008 recording (on Chandos) by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet - who, as it turns out, was a laureate of the first Honens Competition back in 1992. Bavouzet has recorded the complete piano works of both Debussy and Ravel, just one of many fine pianists to draw comparisons with.

Vonsattel then takes us into unfamiliar territory, with Heinz Holliger’s Elis: Drei Nachstücke (“Three Night Pieces”), inspired by a poem by the Austrian writer Georg Trakl (1887-1914) whose brief life was full of torment. Holliger is the acclaimed oboist whose career as a performer has overshadowed his career as a composer. These three pieces, lasting less than five minutes, have “haunted house” timbres and stretches of silence.

Before closing the recital with Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, the pianist treats us to a piquant rarity, just three minutes long, by Arthur Honegger: Hommage à Ravel. It features Ravelian tonalities combined with playful, tumbling rhythms.

As noted above, Gilles Vonsattel is Swiss, a factor that no doubt influenced his choice of the Holliger and Honnegger pieces. Heinz Holliger is Swiss and so was Arthur Honegger (he was born in France and was a member of the Parisian group of composers of the 1920s, Les Six, but was Swiss – in fact his picture is on the 20-franc banknote).

Like the Heinz Holliger piece, Gaspard de la nuit was inspired by poetry and night-time. It is renowned for its difficulty, but it requires a subtle, rather than showy, pyrotechnicality. Also in three parts ("Ondine", "Le Gibet", "Scarbo"), its varying atmospheres are deftly conjured up by Vonsattel.

All in all, a very nicely produced CD. The liner information, consisting of an interview with the pianist by broadcaster Eric Friesen, is personable and pertinent. (One cavil: the print need not be so tiny.)

Michael Johnson




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