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Gilles Vonsattel Plays Ravel, Debussy & Honegger - Honens

Another Laureate of the 2009 Honens International Piano Competition, Swiss-born American Gilles Vonsattel, a pupil of Jerome Lowenthal, brings a decided flair for the Gallic repertory to this disc, in which the spirit of Ravel reigns supreme. The opening Ravel 1905 Sonatine's descending fourths enjoy a sensuous wash of sound, watery and clean, appropriate to its neo-Classic taste. The Menuet prances with delicacy and nobility at once. The bravura last movement Toccata (Anime) proves entirely idiomatic to Vonsattel, the rapid ostinati, polyrhythms, and asymmetrical accents absorbed into a harmonized, artistic whole. Vonsattel, moreover, maintains a wonderfully homogeneous dynamic level, the sonority even, the metric flux constant despite an ever-shifting palette.

The two sets of Debussy's Images (1904; 1906) pay tribute to the aesthetic movement, especially in the works of Watteau, Renoir, and the so-called Impressionists. But they explore the "poetic" influence of Mallarme and the Symbolists no less. A cool patina resides in Reflets dans l'eau, Vonsattel's having established an objective distance from the beguiling mix of chords and colors in this piece. We might detect the influence of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli in Vonsattel's approach. His Homage a Rameau pays delicate but extended tribute to the clavecinist in stately, sec chords that proceed in a dream vision whose middle section tries to dance. Mouvement moves in pentatonic and exotic swirls, "fantastically light yet absolutely precise." Here, Vonsattel joins those exalted ranks of Debussy acolytes, such as Gieseking and Casadesus, who evoke chimes and bells in the mists Debussy evokes from his keyboard. The bells literally coalesce in Cloches a travers les feuilles, in which Vonsattel's diminuendi pass through microscopic layers of diaphanous aether. Debussy's idiosyncratic harmony dominates Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, the Moonlight Falls Upon a Temple That is No More. Vonsattel projects a paradoxical moving stasis over the portrait, little rivulets of time that trickle into a forgotten garden. Poissons d'or captures the sudden, shifting capriciousness of domestic goldfish whose potent leaps and turns remind us that Siamese Fighting Fish also belong to this mercurially aggressive genus.

Oboe virtuoso Heinz Holliger (b. 1939) set his mid-1960s triptych Elis to poetry by Georg Trakl, conceived as (Bartokian) night-music. Pointillistic, the pieces seem pulverized in the manner of Webern, though their high register makes them glimmer. The dark bass at the end of III manages to invoke a shadow of something that had remained invisible. Arthur Honegger imitates the parallel harmonies Ravel with fond decorum, an evolving line that attracts some plastic, modal harmony, perhaps a wisp of the gamelan of Indonesia. Finally, Ravel's homage to "Gothic" poet Aloysius Bertrand, Gaspard de la Nuit (1908), whose "Scarbo" movement Ravel meant to exceed Balakirev's Islamey in technical difficulty. Ondine by Vonsattel weaves and splashes through luminous waters, three-note chords moving in rolling arpeggios over a swelling bass line. Even as an etude, the grueling right hand part reveals Vonsattel's pearly control, and his tempos bask in the demon sprite's undulating allure. Vonsattel shades the intrusive, morbidly obsessive B-flat of Le gibet, an unholy picture of a hanged corpse illumined by the setting sun. That the gruesome spectacle gains a liquid eroticism makes the horror most revealing of Conrad's epithet about "the fascination of the abomination." For Vonsattel, the picture of the nightmarish dwarf Scarbo offers an opportunity to scare the daylights out of his audience. The imitations of Islamey and Moussorgsky's Gnomus notwithstanding, the piece challenges Vonsattel mercilessly with its fast repeated notes and major second scales in double notes. The feverish hallucination of the music conveys an eerie waltz or siren's song, a grotesquerie born of Schubert's Erl-King's ghastly lullaby to a dying child. Piano sound, courtesy of engineer Brian Leonard, quite consumes one's breath as it inundates the ear.

Gary Lemco, Audiophile Audition
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