Madeleine Forte, Piano: Ravel, Selected Works


I've never been a huge fan of Ravel's piano music, finding it a bit glacial and much preferring the more extroverted, tonally adventurous works of his fellow French impressionist Debussy. But if there's one disc that has prompted me to rethink that somewhat kneejerk opinion, this is it. Madeleine Forte, a student of the great Alfred Cortot at the École Normale, is one of the few to carry the torch of old-school technique into future generations as the blight of modernist note grabbing continually threatens to snuff it out. Forte's virtuosic command over the composer's variegated colors and idiomatic keyboard figurations allows her Ravel to shimmer and sparkle as limpidly and effervescently as a glass of Perrier.

Her Gaspard de la nuit is a highlight for me, particularly the coy seduction of her "Ondine," whose pearly, glasslike hues conjure up images of the ice witch from the Chronicles of Narnia. With crystalline fingerwork that ripples and flourishes, Forte beckons the unsuspecting seafarer nearer for a fateful look into the watery depths. She has a fine grasp of the piece's classical rises and falls, as exhibited in the way she grandly renders the ascending chords at the central climax without slowing down, as so many pianists (e.g., Ponti) do. Perhaps even more surprising, though, is the demonic, virile energy Forte conveys in the hellishly difficult Scarbo, which may even outstrip that in Francois's fiendish version. Her mordant attack on the repeated notes in this piece crackles like sparks jettisoned by a fire. Nestled between these two diametrically themed tone-poems is the Gibet, which, in its portrait of a man hanging by a noose in the middle of the desert, seems a statement on the banality of death. Of particular note here are Forte's ghostly pedaling effects, which blend the bleak harmonies together in a mist of foreboding doom. My hope, though perhaps a vain one, is that this 
wonderfully translucent interpretation of the Gaspard will stay afloat through the passing years and that Gieseking's and Argerich's flabby renditions will sink to the ocean floor. 

There is much to like in Forte's performances of some of the smaller works as well. Like her "Ondine," her Jeux d'eau
a stand-alone morceau that was heavily influenced by Liszt's piece by the same nameabounds in gracefully executed water effects. In the Sonatine, written in three slight but challenging movements, Forte manages to take flight in a way that Marcelle Meyer, Thibaudet, and even Cortot do not. Her modéré first movement and second-movement minuet could perhaps profit from a freer rubato in places (I might have a similar reservation about her Pavane pour une infante défunte) but, as always, her dynamic control, technical panache, and elfin lightness are admirable. What really caught my attention, though, was her puckish accents and unflagging energy in the final animé, my favorite movement of the three.

Much of the Miroirs leaves me rather cold, especially the first two, Noctuelles and Oiseux tristes, though this may be more attributable to what I perceive as their modern amorphousness than to Forte's playing, which is crisp and fluid throughout. More to my liking is the Barque sur l'ocean, whose waves mysteriously undulate as a lighthouse faintly illuminates a passing ship in the distance. Again, Forte proves more than equal to the task, oscillating up and down the bassline arpeggiations under the ship's hull in masterful counterpoise to the shining beacon portrayed by the right hand. The Alborada del gracioso, which couldn't be a more polar contrast in character to the Barque, may be the only weak point on this disc, which is perhaps not unsurprising given that its flamenco guitar-like effects and forceful staccato seem better suited for the hands of a beefy Spaniard than for a French lady. Here Forte seems a bit sluggish, failing to capture the ethnic feel while getting particularly bogged down in the treacherous repeated-note patterns. (Interestingly, this is one of Richter's more successful and exciting performances of French music; his has a bearlike power even though it lacks Spanish flair too.). She's right back on track with the Vallée des cloches, though, capturing the many permutations of the bell-like effects with ease.

Small nitpicks aside, this disc is a treat for the senses that, in places, could have served as the soundtrack for the movie
Renoir. Forte's remarkly assured, shimmering pianism is at its height in Ravel's deftly orchestrated keyboard textures. And like the finest wines and cheeses, this recording only stands to improve with age.

Joe's Grade: A-      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016