Ravel's last set of piano pieces, the suite Le tombeau de Couperin
, acquired memorial significance only after his initial imagining of it as a Suite française
: when young friends of his began to die in the trenches, a nostalgic look at eighteenth-century French music in general assumed more personal references. There is therefore very little if anything here that is solemn, let alone lugubrious. After a digitally challenging ‘Prélude’, the ‘Fugue’ (Ravel’s only published example of the form) unfolds with a sense of placid purpose, enlivened by the countersubject’s descending triplet. The ‘Forlane’, written in the summer of 1914, was the first movement to be written, and Ravel prepared for it by transcribing the forlane from Couperin’s fourth Concert royal
, keeping the overall structure (ABACADA) but adorning it with some of his most acidic harmonies. After the ‘Rigaudon’, whose implacable outer sections enclose a dreamier central one, the last of his five ‘Menuets’ is a miracle of elegance and poise. The central musette brings with it a hint of the ‘Dies irae’ plainsong and builds into a powerful chromatic climax, before overlapping with insouciant skill beneath the return of the minuet. Ravel described the brilliant final ‘Toccata’ as ‘pure Saint-Saëns’—from him, a compliment to its excellent workmanship. Marguerite Long gave the first performance on 11 April 1919.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2011