Igor Stravinsky dismissed his fellow composer Maurice Ravel as “the most perfect of Swiss clockmakers.” But listening attentively to Gustavo Romero’s supple—sometimes ravishing—account of several Ravel solo piano works on Sunday (July 21), not for a moment did I sense a mechanical scheme behind these luminous sonic portraits.
Every summer since 1999 Romero has returned to his native San Diego to perform for the La Jolla Athenaeum a piano recital series devoted either to a single composer or to a pair of composers. This year’s composer duo is Maurice Ravel and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Although these two composers were contemporaries, their outlooks were significantly different, with the Russian looking back to the impassioned Romanticism of Chopin and Liszt and the Frenchman leaning into the less effulgent moods of Impressionism and the refinement of nascent neo-classicism. Yet both were unabashed colorists, a trait that clearly played to Romero’s keyboard strengths. A master of detail and an elegant sculptor of phrasing, Romero created a kaleidoscope of shimmering tapestries at the Yamaha concert grand.
His incisive, urgent interpretation of Ravel’s early masterwork “Jeux d’eau” and the composer’s piano version of his profound and mature orchestral tone poem “La Valse” struck me as the highlights of the program. Romero gracefully traversed the initial balletic elegance of “La Valse” to its dervish-like denouement, never overplaying his hand and only deftly suggesting the dark forces roiling just beneath the surface of this dance.
At the other end of the intellectual spectrum, Rachmaninoff’s effusively elaborated transcription of J. S. Bach’s Violin Partita in E Major—Romero offered the Prelude, Gavotte, and Gigue—revealed how the adapter’s excess diminished the dramatic tension of the original, although the Romero’s technical aplomb brought these movements to glittering perfection.
The program was replete with shorter works, particularly by Rachmaninoff. Among the more compelling pieces, I would cite his G Minor Prelude, Op. 23, No. 5, for Romero’s surprisingly brash, unbridled account of this turbulent piece; his immaculate clarity of melodic line in the sunny G Major Prelude, Op. 32, No. 5, and the soul shaking rumble he evoked in the B Minor Prelude, Op. 32, No. 10.
Three 1913 preludes by Ravel suggested the sentimental passagework of salon music, especially the “Prélude á la manière de Chabrier.”
Romero offered two exquisite encores, Ravel’s “Pièce en forme de Habanera” and Rachmaninoff’s wistful, familiar “Vocalise.