The second disc in this talented pianist's acclaimed Ravel series, Volume Two contains some of Ravel's most cherished piano works.
One can find traces of the 'unnatural' polish and definitiveness sometimes felt in his pieces as early as his student days. When he was twenty-three, a comment by a teacher already included the qualification 'overly refined'. He was consciously in search of emotional balance and perfection and declared: 'If I ever did a perfect piece of work I would stop composing immediately.' As for the 'emotional detachment' often attributed to Ravel, he was quick to refute it: 'That’s wrong. I am Basque. Basques feel things violently, but they say little about it and only to a few.' It appears, however, that his attachment was more sentimental and acquired rather than factual (his mother was Basque and his father Swiss), since the family had moved to Paris when he was four months old. In the aftermath of his World War I experience as a truck driver, in 1924 Ravel evolved from his Basqueness and declared himself 'above all a French composer' echoing, less than a decade later, Debussy’s signature on his last three works: 'musicien français'.
The piano held particular importance in Ravel’s compositional process, as almost all of the new trends in his style appeared first in his piano music. He preferred Erard pianos, because the company was still straight-stringing pianos even into the 20th century, thus keeping the action light and facilitating repeated notes and glissandi. Incidentally, Ravel had never considered himself a concert pianist and, although frequently solicited, played comparatively few of his own pieces in public. However, he did take a favourable view to recording technology and signed a contract with the Aeolian Company of London in 1920 to make ten recordings over two years. In the end, five recordings (between 1922 and 1928) were autographed by Ravel, but of those only Toccata and Le gibet were actually recorded by the pianist Robert Casadesus. All in all, over 250 recordings of Ravel’s music were issued up to 1939, making him probably the most recorded living Classical composer before World War II. Curiously, the first all-Ravel piano recital was given by a seventeen-year-old pianist by the name of Henriette Fauré in Paris on January 18, 1923.
The Prélude consists of only twenty-seven lyrical measures and was composed in 1913 as a sight-reading test for the Concours de Piano of the Paris Conservatoire. It was subsequently dedicated to Jeanne Leleu ('a souvenir from an artist who has been sincerely touched by your musical qualities') who did so well in reading it.
Marking the centenary of Joseph Haydn’s death in January 1910, La Revue Musicale of the Société Internationale de Musique published a collection of tributes, commissioned from Debussy, Ravel, Dukas, d’Indy, Hahn and Widor. Although Durand published the second edition just a month later, the first performance didn’t take place until March 1911 in the Salle Pleyel. All six tributes were based on the translation into pitches of the HAYDN motif, B-A-D-D-G, (where German H=B natural, and Y and N are obtained counting alphabetically from A). This technique, known as soggetto cavato (a subject 'carved out' from the letters of the name), was quite common in the Renaissance. In spite of Debussy’s affirmation that, apart from the homage, the piece on the whole is so insignificant that 'it will disappear in a puff of smoke', time has been kind only to his own contribution and Ravel’s Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn. Consciously implementing some common Renaissance composition procedures that Haydn was also fond of, Ravel—albeit in a concealed fashion—used the main motif in retrograde and inversion as well.
Begun in 1903 and finished in 1905, Sonatine was Ravel’s first piece in Auguste and Jacques Durand’s catalogue. Its first movement is a neo-classical exercise written in response to a competition sponsored by a short-lived Anglo-French periodical, The Weekly Review. Ravel said about the Menuet movement, which continues the tradition of the Menuet antique: 'Generally, it is played too spikily.' The movement’s second theme is derived from the opening of the first movement and unfolds simultaneously with its own augmentation. Its end resembles a broad gesture, somewhat like a deep curtsey. The Animé finale unfolds almost in a perpetual motion and Perlemuter relates that Ravel required 'great exactitude of rhythm'. However, Ravel’s 1913 recording shows quite a degree of flexibility. Although Ravel was not appreciative of his own early works, he did choose this one to play on his American tour, instead of the Concerto in G, which he himself judged too difficult for his own pianistic abilities.
Sharing (with the Habanera for two pianos) the distinction of being among Ravel’s firstpublished pieces, Menuet antique was written in 1895 and published in 1898 by Enoch (Chabrier’s old publisher). Its first performance was given by Ricardo Viñes in April 1898. The opening chord of the work appeared in the main section of Sérénade grotesque and the whole opening phrase contrasts modal and diatonic harmonies. Jankélévitch described the piece as the twin of Chabrier’s Menuet pompeux (1881), which was orchestrated by Ravel in 1918.
'The title Valses nobles et sentimentales adequately indicates my intention of composing a series of waltzes in imitation of Schubert. The virtuosity which forms the basis of Gaspard de la nuit is succeeded by writing which is distinctly more transparent, giving more firmness to the harmonies and showing up the contours of the music in more relief. The Valses nobles et sentimentales were first performed amid protestations and boos at a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendente, in which the names of the composers were not revealed. The audience voted on the probable authorship of each piece. The authorship of my piece was recognised—by a slight majority.' Thus wrote Ravel in his never-published autobiographical sketch from 1931, drafted by Roland-Manuel and intended for the recording project with Aeolian. The epigraph to the piece, 'le plaisir délicieux et toujours nouveau d’une occupation inutile', comes from Henri de Régnier’s novel Les Rencontres de Monsieur de Bréot (1904). The première was given by Louis Aubert in May 1911 at a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendente. The following year Ravel orchestrated it in fifteen days for a ballet retitled Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs. The piece was quickly pronounced among Ravel’s least accessible, not the least because its highly stylised and harmonically complicated approach did not conform to general expectations for a popular dance. However, Roland-Manuel declared that the piece had seminal importance for Ravel, for whom it served as a kind of reservoir from which he would draw frequently in his later works. Ravel’s 1913 recording for the Welte piano roll, if such recordings can be trusted, is characterised by pervasive spreading of the chords and desynchronised entries of the left and the right hand in slow tempi, with the left hand entering first and arpeggios taking place individually in each hand. The suite’s eight waltzes unfold in a continuous manner and are formally balanced by the introductory character of the first waltz and the epilogue function of the last one, in which the composer brings together all of the previous waltzes apart from the fifth.
Pavane pour une infante défunte, one of Ravel’s most popular pieces, was composed in 1899, published by Demets in 1900 and premiered by Viñes in 1902. It became particularly popular through Ravel’s 1910 orchestration. Ravel once said that its title is meaningless, but elsewhere he also commented that it is 'an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court'. In contrast with the public, Ravel had a rather poor opinion of the piece, writing in 1912: 'By an irony of fate, the first work which I must review is my own Pavane … I no longer see its good points … But, alas, I perceive its faults very clearly: the glaring influence of Chabrier and the rather poverty-stricken form.' Ravel even declined to give any advice to the pianist Vlado Perlemuter when he performed the piece for the composer. However, there is a tempo-related implication in the comment he made to a young pianist, Charles Oulmont: 'Listen, dear boy, remember another time that I wrote the Pavane for a dead princess and not a dead Pavane for a princess.'
When the Italian composer Alfredo Casella encouraged Ravel to write two pastiches based on the styles of Borodin and Chabrier, he had already issued an album entitled In the style of … emulating styles of Wagner, Debussy, Fauré and other composers. The first one is a fast waltz related to the Intermezzo in Borodin’s Petite suite. The second one, bearing all the appearance of a jotted down improvisation, is a double pastiche and purports to demonstrate how Chabrier would have paraphrased Gounod’s music, more precisely Siebel’s flower song, 'Faites-lui mes aveux', from Gounod’s Faust (Act III). The inclusion of Gounod is indicative of Ravel’s view that Gounod represented a link between the celebrated composers of the 18th century and the present ('Without Gounod, perhaps there wouldn’t be any modern French music'). Both pieces were premièred by Alfredo Casella in 1913 in Salle Pleyel at a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendente.
The suite Le tombeau de Couperin was written at the same time as Ravel’s Trio, between 1914 and 1917. It was premièred by Marguerite Long in Salle Gaveau at a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendente in 1919, in what was her first public appearance since the end of the war and Debussy’s death. It elicited a warm and enthusiastic reception. In the same year, Debussy made a partial orchestration of it (omitting the Fugue and Toccata), that Cortot considered as the definitive version which was then used for a ballet in 1920 (further omitting the Prélude). The composer indicated that, 'the homage is directed less in fact to Couperin himself than to French music of the eighteenth century'. It is worth mentioning that Ravel himself was not involved in editing or promoting performances of the music from that era.
The inclusion of a Forlane, a relatively obscure dance, was Ravel’s bemused reaction to Pope Pius X’s attack on the lasciviousness of tango and his efforts to revive forlane, a dance that originated in Venice between the 17th and 18th centuries. Ravel made a reference to the episode in a letter: 'I’m working on something for the Pope. You know that this august personage has just launched a new dance, the forlane. I am transcribing one by Couperin … I will see about getting it danced at the Vatican by Mistinguette and Colette Willy in drag.'
The circumstances behind the dedication of the movements in this Suite do not correspond to the tone of the above reference: although most of the music had been written before, each of the six pieces were dedicated to the memory of a friend fallen in WWI. However, because of the spirit that emanates from the music, Ravel was at the time criticised for having written 'merry music' for such a sombre occasion.
Overall, the Suite’s formal construction seems to have been influenced by Malayan pantun poetry (as was his Piano Trio). In Western literature this form was made famous through Baudelaire’s Harmonies du soir. Briefly, a four-line stanza is made up of two contrasting couplets, and the 2nd and 4th line reappear as the 1st and 3rd of the next stanza, that being the procedure that Ravel seems to have particularly followed.
The first movement, Prélude, was originally entitled Prologue and is followed by the Fugue. In spite of his satirical remark, Ravel was serious about composing, and to prepare for writing Forlane he transcribed for piano a forlane from Couperin’s Concerts royaux. Rigaudon opens as a pièce croisée, employing a rapid hand-crossing technique that gave it the name, particular to clavecinistes. Menuet’s middle section is a Musette, a typical folk-like dance imitating the sound of bagpipes. Although Ravel had indicated that the ending of Toccata was 'pure Saint-Saëns', probably wanting to impart some irony to the comment, the reference turned out to be an artistic tribute, as the piece’s texture and structure exhibit remarkable clarity and balance and thus make the best possible case for the neo-classical style.
Robert Andres © 2008