Hyperion Records

Violin Sonata No 2 in G major
For both Debussy and Ravel, originality was important: Debussy’s motto was ‘toujours plus loin’ (‘ever further’) and Ravel was fond of exclaiming about his own discoveries that ‘personne n’avait fait ça’ (‘nobody has done that before’). If Ravel’s Quartet is to some extent a homage to Debussy’s, there are enough differences between the two works to make charges of plagiarism untenable. Similarly, whereas a superficial glance at the two men’s violin sonatas of 1923–7 and 1917 reveals a pair of three-movement works in G major, they are in fact concerned with utterly different materials and techniques.

Ravel said that his aim was to explore the basic incompatibility of violin and piano, and this lends an uneasy quality to much of the music. The long melodic line that starts the first movement looks, on paper, ‘romantic’. But Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, the violinist to whom he dedicated the sonata, felt it was suited rather to an oboe or a clarinet and spoke of the ‘indifference’ it requires. In any case it is soon interrupted by an angry, snapping little phrase in the piano’s left hand—‘You needed to hear Ravel, with his nervous fingers rather square at the ends, attacking this passage!’

In the central ‘Blues’, Ravel gave vent to his enthusiasm for jazz, as in the opera L’enfant et les sortilèges and the two piano concertos. He wanted the opening piano chords to sound like the plucking of metal strings and the instrument to maintain an implacable rhythm, against which the violin can indulge in freer slides and wailings. On his American tour in 1928, he used this movement to try and convince the critics that jazz was the way forward for American music, and couldn’t understand why they insisted in regarding it as unrespectable. Possibly they were aware of the undertow of pain in the movement. If so, the unrelenting finale only confirmed that this was not a typical work of the Silly Twenties. An earlier version of this movement had been more lyrical but, according to Ravel, not right for the work … and so ended in the fire. The American audiences did not know that Ravel was paying them a compliment by way of emulating Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote of the climax to his poem The Raven: ‘Had I been able, in the subsequent composition, to construct more vigorous stanzas, I should, without scruple, have purposely enfeebled them, so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.’ Are beauty and truth synonymous, as Keats maintained? Or can energy and virtuosity be enough? Whatever the answer, for Ravel, as for us, the apparently effortless confidence of the String Quartet must have seemed a long way in the past.

from notes by Roger Nichols © 2010

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