A worthy new take on two familiar masterpieces

RalphvanRaat-HR_Photo-SimonvanBoxtel-2466A QUICK LOOK AT THE DISCOGRAPHY OF RALPH VAN RAAT will evidence what kind of musician the young Dutch pianist is and how eclectic his musical tastes are.

There are whole albums of his dedicated to the piano music of Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Gavin Bryars, and (surprise!) Charles Koechlin. But even knowing this we were not prepared to sit down to listen to van Raat’s playing of the amazingly complex Lucien Garban arrangement for solo piano of Claude Debussy’s La Mer.

And then, in the same album, there is Vladimir Leyetchkiss 1985, Stravinsky-blessed, solo piano version re-arrangement of the composer’s own two-piano version of his 1911 The Rite of Spring.

In simple terms of endurance, each of these two Leviathans is only fit for the fittest of pianists. No one else need apply. The Debussy clocks in at 23 minutes, and the Stravinsky’s duration of 34 minutes, both depending on what tempi the pianist takes, set both of these arrangements off limits to many a pianist. Which brings us round to van Raat’s protean playing…

Just to be able to follow faithfully the tempo markings on the Debussy would earn you average pianist good marks. Van Raat goes beyond that, drawing out of the piano a full palette of colors. There is no grandstanding, no technical overreaching, no showing off, just rock solid musicianship, elegant musicality, crystal clarity in an astounding performance.

In The Rite of Spring van Raat is equally impressive, dealing with Stravinsky’s polytonal, defiantly complex score unfazed by the mind-bending challenges of sounding like an orchestra in as pianistic a manner as humanly possible. He succeeds without question, not merely by just managing to play all the notes but by making music with two hands and ten fingers that is usually made with several dozen musicians and a conductor keeping them honest.

In the 19th century, before the advent of radio and recorded music, composers such as Franz Liszt made piano reductions of Wagnerian overtures that allowed lovers of music in remote corners of Europe a certain degree of access to the music of the Bayreuth master. Today, with the ease of purchasing a CD of either La Mer or The Rite of Spring or hearing the originals played by one’s local symphony orchestra, one wonders why a piano reduction of either is needed.

Venturing an answer: the Stravinsky 1911 two-piano version of his Rite for one would have served an identical purpose to that of Liszt’s Wagner: salon music for those unable to get to Paris or Berlin or London for the premiere of such a work. The 1985 reworking of the Debussy is fascinating in and of itself, and this listener wagers Debussy would have approved.

One is always thrilled to discover a worthy new take on familiar masterpieces, and here, thanks to the ever-enterprising Naxos and to the immense artistry of Ralph van Raat we have two winners.

Rafael de Acha