Review: Fanfare Magazine on SOMM Debussy/Ravel album

It doesn’t happen as often as you might think that a recording realistically captures the full range of a concert grand, still less often the aliveness of a pianist’s touch. Both are needed to convey Debussy’s Images, because he often likes to employ deep bass and high treble at the same time, and whether in chords or passagework, touch is the key to the music’s poetry. It’s fortunate that the recorded sound is so good on the new album from Venice-born pianist Alessandro Taverna, doubly so because he possesses a subtle style and nuanced touch. Now in his mid-30s with a list of competition prizes to his credit, Taverna is blessedly free of competition bravado, gifted instead with a reflective musicality.

To begin with Book I of Images, he has a natural, easy way with the rise and fall of chords that begins “Reflets dans l’eau” that persists even when glittering scales and arpeggios build the texture. One notices also how well knit the piece is from beginning to end, never losing purpose or devolving into coloristic effects for their own sake. The stately, measured “antique” tone of
“Hommage à Rameau” is expressed with beautiful dignity, keeping the line moving and flexible. The rapid fingerwork in “Mouvement” keeps a steady rhythm against which the thematic elements are allowed to stand out boldly. Hearing these few pieces alone, one senses how secure and instinctive Taverna is in Debussy, and I especially appreciate that he encompasses the full dynamic range of every piece—there’s not a monotonous delicacy. Combing boldness and refinement keeps the playing
interesting at every moment. A sound tapestry such as “Cloches à travers les feuilles,” which opens Book II, is handled as a condensed miniature tone poem rather than a study in atmosphere. Debussy affixed visual titles to his piano music because his imagination fused the pictorial and the musical, but for me, it’s important that each piece sounds coherent and whole even if you forget its evocative title. Taverna succeeds on this count splendidly.

In L’isle joyeuse there’s no separation between bravura display and musical interpretation, which is a compliment as long as you don’t expect the music to be all dazzle. The nice way that Taverna sustains a long line and quick, quiet passagework creates a smooth transition to “Ondine,” the first movement of Gaspard de la nuit. It’s rare to hear this fleeting music played so delicately, almost discreetly. Again, there’s no hint of the anxious competitor trying to outdo everyone else in this famous showpiece. The eerie bleakness of the distant bell in “Le gibet” is conveyed with a shudder. “Scarbo” could have a sharper edge and more cutting sarcasm, but Taverna finds the music behind Ravel’s fierce technical demands.

There’s a confusing welter in the subterranean rumble that begins of La valse before the 3/4 pulse emerges from it. Taverna distinguishes every textural strand with clarity, and the spectral waltz keeps gaining in diabolic energy.

The sessions for this CD occurred over two days centered on live recitals in Southampton, England, and two pieces, Gaspard and La valse, actually derive from the concerts. There’s so much visceral excitement and aliveness in the latter that Taverna should make a habit of live recordings. In any event, this superb release will add luster to his reputation.

Huntley Dent

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