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Pianists and piano lovers who are grateful for Paul Roberts’ splendid Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy (Amadeus Press) will not be surprised that his new book from the same publisher reflects similar qualities of friendly discernment, accessibility, and good sense. Roberts, himself a noted pianist and teacher, is not afraid of challenging a tempo indication in Le tombeau de Couperin,’ opining: ‘For me Ravel’s metronome marking … is too fast. It needs to dance, yet remain flexible enough for the dotted rhythm not to sound mechanical. It should not clip along, but rather lilt.’

Reflections: The Piano Music of Maurice Ravel itself lilts in well-judged views of performance tradition, based on practical experience. Favouring a memoir by Henriette Faure, a somewhat forgotten Ravel pupil, to one by the more celebrated Vlado Perlemuter, Roberts highlights intriguing points, as when Ravel tells Faure that to ‘correct the heaviness of her thumbs’ when performing his Ondine, she should practise Liszt’s Feux- follets. The same pianist noted that when they discussed performers who disregarded his instructions, Ravel sniffed characteristically: ‘Well, obviously they prefer their own imaginations to my reality.’ Only rarely do Roberts’ judgments seem clouded by his obvious adoration of both Debussy and Ravel, as when he sentimentally posits that the former’s death in 1918 was a contributing factor to Ravel’s failure to write any solo piano works after that year. A highly independent individualist, Ravel continued to be inspired compositionally by the long-dead Liszt, although his nightmarish service in the first world war, combined with his beloved mother’s death, also cited by Roberts, are more plausible reasons for abandoning this intimately solitary idiom in which he created so exquisitely.

In biographical matters, Roberts can occasionally be debatable, as when he asserts that ‘Ravel’s was a repressed existence, emotionally and most probably sexually, which he counteracted and corrected through his music (and the huge consumption of his beloved caporal bleu cigarettes).’ Sublimation by smoking may be an acceptable Freudian diagnosis, but a nicotine habit and sex life need not be mutually exclusive, especially for the composer of the overtly erotic Boléro.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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