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Elaine Greenfield, 'Ravel Compared'

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Elaine Greenfield, Ravel Compared - COURTESY
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  • Elaine Greenfield, Ravel Compared

(Navona Records, CD, digital)

South Burlington pianist Elaine Greenfield, a specialist in French composers of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, has a long-standing interest in period instruments. How else can you know how those composers intended their music to sound, if not by playing it on the very instruments they did?

Greenfield has documented the difference on two past recordings. In 2004, she played Claude Debussy on a 1907 Blüthner (the composer had a 1904 one) for Debussy Preludes, Books 1 & 2 — Recording on the Blüthner Piano. On 2010's French Piano Four Hands With the Elegant Erard, she and fellow pianist Janice Meyer Thompson played Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Georges Bizet and Gabriel Fauré on an 1877 Erard.

Greenfield's latest recording, Ravel Compared, goes a step further. It contains two discs of the same all-Ravel program, one played on an 1893 Erard and the other on a 1917 Ivers & Pond parlor concert grand, allowing audiences to hear the differences between an older and a more modern instrument for themselves.

The Erard is the same model Ravel used in his studio. As Greenfield writes in her liner notes, the French-made pianos were "known for their liquid clarity" and the distinct sound of each register. (Greenfield found hers at the Frederick Historical Piano Collection in Ashburnham, Mass.) "Perhaps their tone explains why so many compositions [by 19th- to early 20th-century pianists] referenced water," the pianist muses.

The opening of "Miroirs: Oiseaux tristes" on the Erard highlights the bell-like sounds of the treble register. Starting with a single note and proceeding to a series of quick turns imitating birdcalls, the piece builds a shimmering sonority through the lingering, sustained tails of each "ding" of a note. (This is something beyond the use of the sustaining pedal.) The effect is a dreamlike blend — a sound that reaches its apogee in the first movement of "Gaspard de la nuit," "Ondine," named for the water nymph.

The more muscular start and stop of notes on a modern piano is evident in the Ivers & Pond rendition of "Le tombeau de Couperin." The pulsing composition highlights the full range of modern piano sound, with a thundering in the lower registers that can come only from modern cross-stringing and cast-iron frames. (The Erard is parallel-strung with a composite metal frame.)

Greenfield found the 1917 piano in Syracuse, N.Y., after years of playing the program around the Northeast and beyond. (The whole recording project took her eight years.) When she performed on it, she immediately took to the beauty of its sound and its flexibility of response.

Why didn't she simply use a new Steinway as a point of comparison? Greenfield regards the period of 1915 to 1930 as the "golden age" of pianos, and everything built after that as suspect.

"They leave modern Steinways unfinished," the pianist remarked dismissively during a visit to her South Burlington home. She loves her own two Steinways from 1916 and 1926 — but recordings couldn't happen in her living room.

Most audiences won't switch between CDs to compare the individual pieces, as this reviewer did. Heard sequentially, the album offers another reward: a wide selection of works by this most expressive and mood-evoking of composers played by a seasoned master — twice.

Ravel Compared is available at navonarecords.com.