Un grand sommeil noir [4'47]
Là-bas, vers l'église [1'41]
Tout gai! [0'56]
The award-winning partnership of Gerald Finley and Julius Drake continue their musical explorations with this beautiful and thought-provoking disc. Gerald Finley’s lustrous tones, extraordinary gift for characterisation, and direct, unaffected utterance make him an ideal and revelatory performer of Ravel’s songs.
These works, somewhat under-appreciated in the composer’s oeuvre, demonstrate the endless variety and vast emotional scope of Ravel’s musical sphere. Charming folk-song settings contrast with the almost surrealist world of Histoires naturelles, which caused outrage at its first performance. Yet this cycle contains some of Ravel’s most dreamily beautiful music: the still, crystalline ‘music of silence’ created in Le martin-pêcheur. In the words of Roger Nichols, who provides the fascinating booklet notes, ‘From the sepulchral gloom of Un grand sommeil noir to the final exclamation ‘Je bois / À la joie’ …, Ravel’s songs embrace a whole world’.
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In all Ravel’s output, his songs are perhaps the least appreciated genre. Why this is so remains something of a mystery, but it could stem from his refusal to repeat himself, so that there is nothing we can call a typical Ravel song. Of course this refusal applies to every other aspect of his work (one of his favourite remarks, when noting a trouvaille in his own or someone else’s music, was ‘And then, you know, no one had ever done that before’), but is there perhaps something in the psyche of music lovers that prefers songs to be ever so slightly predictable? Whatever the truth of this, the ones chosen for this disc can conveniently be separated into ‘folk songs’ and, for want of a better term, ‘art songs’.
Ravel was involved in arranging some Corsican folk songs in the 1890s, but nothing similar then came his way until February 1904 when a friend, the critic M D Calvocoressi, was asked to find someone to set six songs for a lecture entitled ‘The songs of oppressed peoples—Greeks and Armenians’. Ravel wrote the settings in thirty-six hours, but felt that four of them were too scanty. The remaining two, Quel galant m’est comparable? and Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques, found their way into the Cinq mélodies populaires grecques performed as part of two lecture-recitals by Calvocoressi during the 1905–6 season. If the original accompaniments were too scanty, the ones we have are by no means over-succulent, with simple harmonies and many bare fifths. In Quel galant, Ravel curiously but effectively negates the Aeolian mode of the tune, based on A, by treating it tonally in G major. In Chanson des cueilleuses, on the other hand, the Lydian D sharps are a feature of both tune and accompaniment. It may be worth pointing out that ‘lentisques’ have nothing to do with lentils: Pistachia lentiscus, the lentisk tree, exudes mastic, a pale yellow gum-resin used for varnish, cement and liquor. For the girls engaged in gathering this substance, having sticky hands may well have made the ‘blond angel’ of their desire seem further off than ever.
The first song of the set, Chanson de la mariée, was correctly retitled by Ravel when he orchestrated it some thirty years later as Le réveil de la mariée, what might vulgarly be termed ‘The bride’s wake-up call’. The Phrygian modality of the original tune (G minor with A flat) suggested to Ravel not just the occasional A flat major chord, but a succession of five chords in which the frisson between A flat and G minor is intensified by chromatic harmonies. Là-bas, vers l’église, also on a Phrygian tune, celebrates villagers buried in the local cemetery, and the final words, ‘Du monde tous les plus braves!’, intimate that they were killed in battle. Here the spread chords evoke bells with wonderful economy. The final song, Tout gai!, is in a tonal A flat major with not an accidental in sight, while the slight variations in the second verse are just enough to preclude predictability.
His next group of folk songs dated from 1910 when Ravel entered seven settings for a competition organized by the Maison du Lied in Moscow. The four Chants populaires published the following year were those that won prizes: of the three also-rans, two are lost, while the Chanson écossaise was recovered by the American scholar Arbie Orenstein from a sketch and published in 1975. After the Chanson espagnole, omitted here because of its inescapably female orientation, in the Chanson française Ravel avoids all artiness or sentimentality. The tune and text, collected in the area around Limoges, had been published in 1904 by d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum, one of Ravel’s bêtes noires, so winning a prize with this must have been especially sweet. In the hypnotic rhythms of the Chanson hébraïque we hear that penchant for monotony that runs through all Ravel’s music, while the pathetic inflections of the Chanson italienne give evidence of his admiration for Puccini. Finally, the Chanson écossaise is adorned with discreet bagpipes—possibly Breton binious, since he didn’t visit Scotland until 1911.
The success of the Chanson hébraïque led in 1914 to a commission from Alvina Alvi, a soprano with the St Petersburg Opera, to harmonize two further Hebrew melodies. Kaddisch (in Aramaic, ‘qaddish’) is a liturgical chant, the Magnificat of the synagogue service, but also sung by mourners after the death of a close relative. The mood is one of contained ecstasy, and tension is built out of the jarring between the melismata of the voice and the simple accompaniment with its unremitting G naturals. L’énigme éternelle is, by contrast, squarely metrical. The eternal puzzle of existence resolves into tra-la-las and the harshly repetitive accompaniment underlines the futility of pursuing the topic, in line with the composer’s agnostic stance that he found it hard enough to fathom his own motives without trying to understand those of a celestial Being.
With his next group of songs, Histoires naturelles on prose poems by Jules Renard, Ravel’s playfulness tipped over into controversy and the premiere in January 1907 was a noisy affair. His chief crime was to eliminate some of the final mute ‘e’s, in the popular style of the café concert. In the opening Le paon, the peacock’s pomposity is undercut by the shortening of ‘la fi-an-cé-e n’ar-ri-ve pas’ to ‘la fian-cé’ n’ar-riv’ pas’. There was even shouting when, in Le grillon, as the cricket took a rest (‘Il se repose’) Ravel’s music came to a sudden halt. Equally disconcerting, after the busy-busy movements of the cricket (which some commentators have likened to Ravel himself), is the magical, visionary epilogue in D flat major, where he later admitted he had deliberately allowed his Romantic inclinations to surface. Debussy, who by 1907 was no longer a friend, complained of the ‘factitious Americanism’ of the more light-hearted passages in the cycle, but even he had to admit Le cygne was beautiful music. The piano part is marked ‘very gentle and enveloped in pedal’ and the setting of seven semiquavers in the right hand against two in the left makes for effortless progress, quite different from the cricket’s precise gestures. Ravel dedicated the song to Misia Godebska, a mover and shaker in Parisian musical circles who was soon to become Diaghilev’s right-hand woman, and it could be that Ravel saw her as the swan, gliding smoothly through society with her eye fixed on the main chance.
‘Not a bite, this evening’, complains the fisherman at the start of Le martin-pêcheur. The cool, diamond-like, almost Messiaenic chords do not react (unlike the 1907 audience which here rose to an apogee of outrage) but go their way ‘as slowly as possible’. Here is a music of silence, the singer somehow conveying breathlessness while breathing deeply. Pierre Bernac called it ‘the most difficult mélodie of the set’. But for the pianist the worst moments come in La pintade. With its gruppetti and shrill, explosive acciaccaturas, it looks back not just to Alborada del gracioso but to another fowl-piece, ‘Baba-Yaga’ from Musorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition. It makes an entertaining and aesthetically uncomplicated finale to the set, but also displays Ravel’s aggressive side.
He gave vent to this again in his next song, Les grands vents venus d’outremer, written just three months after the Histoires naturelles premiere. The poem, by his friend Henri de Régnier, is so highly condensed and evokes such fleeting images that Ravel wisely generalizes the emotion. Almost undoubtedly Debussy had this song in mind when, in 1911, he stated that de Régnier’s poetry could not be set to music. Ravel, we may think, proved otherwise, but at the cost of unusual textural complication. His other song of 1907, Sur l’herbe, returns to the conversational tone of Histoires naturelles, but retaining all mute ‘e’s. The courtly, pseudo-eighteenth-century atmosphere is Ravel’s home territory, suggested by Phrygian modality with chromatic alterations. Needless to say, the ‘Do, mi, sol, la, si’ and ‘Do, mi, sol’ of the poem are treated as they deserve.
After the War, Ravel’s output slowed markedly and only eight songs date from 1917 to his death twenty years later. It was the time of ‘dépouillement’, of stripping away lavish pre-War costumes to reveal the musculature beneath. As an example of this it would be hard to improve on the song Ronsard à son âme which was Ravel’s contribution, together with those of eight other composers, to a special number of the Revue musicale to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the poet’s birth in 1924. Under three minutes in length, it is the simplest song he ever wrote. The piano part consists mostly of bare fifths for the right hand alone, and Ravel declared it was his favourite among his own songs because he could play and hold a cigarette at the same time. Ronsard’s desire to infuse the French language with the spirit of the classics is matched in Ravel’s setting, also retrospective in its almost Palestrinian regulation of consonance and dissonance. At the same time the piled-up fifths of the final chord would seem to have been borrowed from the last song of Milhaud’s cycle Catalogue de fleurs, premiered as recently as 1922. Ravel touched on his song’s valedictory quality in a letter to Falla: ‘I’ve written my Epitaphe, or at least Ronsard’s, and I’ve put as much zest into it as if it was destined for me.’
Ravel’s last three songs, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, were the result of a commission for a film about the Spanish knight directed by the Austrian film-maker Georg Pabst, with Chaliapin in the title role. The contract of June 1932 specified a serenade, a heroic song and a comic one, with a deadline of August and a warning that Chaliapin preferred not to have too many high Cs, Ds or E flats. In the event Ravel was dilatory in coming up with the goods and Ibert was engaged for the film instead.
The songs portray the noble lunatic as lover, holy warrior and drinker, and Ravel with typical fastidiousness chose three distinct types of dance rhythm to illustrate these facets. The first, Chanson romanesque, is a quajira, a Spanish dance with alternating bars of 6/8 and 3/4. The harmonic progressions and the grateful curve of the melody recall Ravel’s beloved Chabrier with a simplicity of means that has little in common with the style dépouillé. The song ends with the apostrophe ‘Ô Dulcinée’, as blind love overwhelms the verbal conceits. For the Chanson épique Ravel chose the 5/4 of the Basque zortzico. Here the chordal accompaniment and modal inflections recall not so much Chabrier as Ravel’s teacher Fauré. The final Chanson à boire celebrates the only real attribute of the Don, and Ravel accentuates this realism both by the cumulative, insistent cross-rhythms of the jota and by a strictly strophic setting of the two verses. Cunningly, he manages to build into the music the longueurs and exaggerations typical of the drunkard.
From the sepulchral gloom of Un grand sommeil noir to the final exclamation ‘Je bois / À la joie’ … Ravel’s songs embrace a whole world.
Roger Nichols © 2009