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The piano concerto and Rapsodie espangole are two of the surprisingly few works for orchestra by Ravel which did not start life as piano pieces. This collection also includes the composer's own masterful orchestrations of 'Mother Goose' and two of the 'Popular Greek Melodies' as well as luscious elaborations by Percy Grainger and others.
He had a simple but striking musical dictum, maintaining there were only two kinds of music: music which pleases, and music which does not. Ravel’s achievements certainly continue to please vast numbers of music lovers, over eighty years after his death. Yet ironically, struck down by a terrible illness in his final years. Ravel himself lamented: 'I have left nothing. I have not said what I wanted to say. Alas, I am not one of the great composers!'
It is a sentiment typical of the man who was the sternest possible critic of his own work. Ruthlessly he rejected anything he felt ill-conceived or half-baked, aborted project after project in an obsessive quest for perfection. As a result, we are left with a relatively small catalogue of extraordinarily high quality; indeed, many of his works areuniversally regarded as unsurpassed technical triumphs and towering masterpieces of the twentieth century.
He staunchly believed that composition which was a product of the intellect alone was not worth the paper it was written on. 'Complexity, not complication' was a phrase he drummed into his pupils. Even in Ravel’s most austere pages there is no sense of his abandoning the listener. It is music which rewards again and again repeated hearings, revealing its innermost secrets only to those who are open to discover them. In his compositions, just as in his life, Ravel’s feelings are in hiding. Unmasking Ravel and plumbing his hidden depths is one of the most profoundly satisfying and richly rewarding experiences to be found in all music.
Valley of the bells
In his youth, Ravel was frequently to be found with a band of friends—they called themselves Les Apaches—at the rather bohemian studio of Maurice Delage, which had been a pavilion built for the 1900 Paris Exposition and was subsequently transported to a remote garden in Auteuil. Here they would play all the new music they could find on their two rickety pianos, discuss art and politics, and most importantly, give each other sneak previews of their new works.
Ravel was thirty when he arrived one evening with the manuscript of Oiseaux tristes, of which he was inordinately proud. His fellow Apaches were at a loss to understand the new piece, with its unusual harmonies and an aesthetic they couldn’t at first grasp. However, here was Ravel truly crystallising his artistic principles with what would finally come out as Miroirs, a five-movement set of piano pieces which concluded with 'La vallée des cloches', dedicated to Delage.
Each of the movements is highly pictorial and descriptive, their subjects testifying to Ravel’s lifelong penchant for the exotic. As with so much of Ravel’s piano music, orchestral sonorities seem to float on the keyboard—this may be why Ravel found the subsequent task of orchestrating so many of his piano works quite effortless. Even so, he transcribed only two of the numbers from Miroirs: 'Alborada del gracioso', which has become one of his most often-performed orchestral pieces, and 'Une barque sur l’océan', which he withdrew from publication because he was dissatisfied with the orchestration.
We have the Australian-born composer Percy Grainger to thank for giving us this ingenious and attractive arrangement of 'La vallée des cloches'. Grainger takes a very literal view of 'Valley of the bells', populating it with glockenspiel, staff bells, vibraphone, marimba, celeste, dulcitone, and other 'tuneful percussion' (to quote Grainger’s heading on his score) including the strings of a piano struck by mallets. There are three distinct bell sonorities in Ravel’s original piano manuscript, but we can count at least six in Grainger’s version.
The bells echo out and set the scene for one of Ravel’s incomparably beautiful long- breathed melodies. It is a wistful song, handed by Grainger to the orchestral strings to quite magical effect. The piece ends as it begins, with the chiming of bells, fading into the distance.
At the turn of the century, the ongoing battle between Ravel and Theodore Dubois, director of the Paris Conservatoire where Ravel was studying, was at its height. Dubois was the most unforgiving of reactionaries, and on many occasions sought to extinguish the career of the 'upstart' Ravel by conspiring to eliminate entry after entry of Ravel’s for the Prix de Rome.
Fauré and Massenet supported the young composer, however, and in the end it all came to a blazing head with Dubois’s resignation. But meanwhile, the onus was on Ravel to establish his worth in the broader musical life of Paris, indeed of all Europe. He was already being talked about for his celebrated Pavane pour une infante défunte and all eyes were now upon him to prove he was more than a mere flash-in-the-pan. This the twenty-six year old Ravel demonstrated beyond all doubt with the release of Jeux d’eau, his first really major work for the piano and a foundation-stone for a whole new technique of piano playing. It firmly established Ravel as a powerful force in French music, and achieved international recognition for him.
A miracle of musical descriptiveness, Jeux d’eau takes as its starting point a poem by Henri de Regnier which begins, 'The river god laughs at the water as it tickles him …' As Ravel described it: 'This piece, inspired by the sound of water and the music of fountains, cascades and streams, is founded on two motifs, after the fashion of the first movement of a sonata, without, however, being subjected to the classical plan.'
Ravel never attempted an orchestral version of this work, but Viacava offers us some imaginative solutions to the problems of orchestrating a piece which is so inherently pianistic. In this recording, we may judge for ourselves the measure of his success.
It seems strange that one of the greatest manipulators of the modern symphony orchestra should have composed so few works directly for that medium. Like Boléro, Rapsodie espagnole is one of only a handful of pieces Ravel wrote for the orchestra without a published piano version arriving first. Yet even this is not wholly true: the third movement, 'Habanera', is an arrangement of a youthful piece for two pianos composed twelve years earlier.
Allegations were made that Debussy had plagiarized ideas from Ravel’s 'Habanera' and incorporated them into his 'La soirée dans Grenade', part of his suite Estampes. Similarly there were accusations the other way when Ravel published Jeux d’eau, but significantly these disputes were started by neither composer; they were in fact great admirers of each other’s work. However, to set the record straight, when Ravel orchestrated 'Habanera' for inclusion in the Rapsodie, at the head of the score he carefully noted the date of the piano original—1895—half a dozen years in advance of Debussy’s Estampes. (For an interesting orchestration of 'La soirée dans Grenade' by Leopold Stokowski, please refer to).
Ravel was only in his early thirties when Rapsodie espagnole was first performed at the Concerts Colonne in Paris, yet it is the work of a master. It miraculously conjures up the sights, sounds and perfumes of Spain, from the atmospheric night-time rustlings of the Prélude to the riotous gaiety of the final festival music, loud with the clatter of castanets. This is still French music, of course—a Parisian in Granada, as might be said. Even so, no less an authority than Manuel de Falla was the first to admit that Ravel and Debussy had, in their Spanish works, succeeded in creating an authentic, yet modern evocation of his native land. It set de Falla on a new exploration of the music south of the French border which would result in his masterpieces El amor brujo and El sombrero de tres picos.
The four movements of Rapsodie espagnole constitute an astonishing feat of instrumental resource, without a single detail left to chance. As Burnett James has written: 'The heart is warm, the head is cool, the hand directed with the skill of a surgeon’s scalpel.'
Ravel was an insatiable reader. His favourite authors included Edgar Allen Poe, Huysmans, Joseph de Maistre and Baudelaire. The poetry of Aloysius Bertrand held a fascination for him too, and inspired from him his great piano masterpiece Gaspard de la nuit—one of the loftiest challenges in all twentieth century keyboard music, and an example of the composer’s sometimes merciless demands on his interpreters.
The ghost of Poe seems to loom large with Bertrand in the middle movement of Gaspard: 'Le gibet'. Keyboard pyrotechnics are temporarily eschewed in favour of virtuosity of another kind: creating all of Ravel’s subtle sonorities and remaining steadfastly unafraid of making the piece seem monotonous—for only then does it cast its macabre spell. The grim death knoll of a tolling bell creates a weird, hallucinatory atmosphere of stillness and fog as a corpse swings on the gibbet: an upright post with an extending arm on which the bodies of executed criminals were strung up.
Possibly taking the nod from Ravel’s somewhat ironic assertion that Gaspard de la nuit is really 'an orchestral transcription for the piano', the great conductor and composer Eugene Goossens offers us this most evocative arrangement of 'Le gibet', suitably dressing Ravel’s haunting phrases in dark, sombre orchestral colours. Goossens enters the spirit of the piece completely, even taking time to sketch a line-drawing of the body dangling by moonlight, on the cover of his score! He imaginatively recreates Ravel’s endlessly repeated B flat bell by scoring it for two harps, celeste and stopped horns—adding the sound of a real bell towards the end, to great effect.
Piano Concerto in G major
It is surprising that it took Ravel, the renowned composer for the piano, and Ravel the master orchestrator, so long to knit the two together and compose a concerto: more surprising that when he did, he produced not one but two concertos simultaneously.
Around 1914 Ravel had, in fact, invested much time on the composition of a work for piano and orchestra to be called Zaspiak-Bat. It was to incorporate Basque folk-song melodies, but Ravel was unable to make them gel into a cohesive work, so he abandoned it. Nevertheless, some of its ideas resurfaced in the Piano Concerto in G, which he had begun in the aftermath of a phenomenally successful tour conducting orchestras in the United States, where he had heard a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and been struck by it.
Ravel planned to perform his new concerto himself on a forthcoming European tour. Alas, his declining health prevented this, so he offered the premiere to Marguerite Long, Ravel’s favoured interpreter in later years. Ravel experienced great difficulty in finishing the work. Early on, he had promised Mme Long that her concerto would conclude quietly with trills—a pianist’s dream ending. She recalled her surprise when, later, she turned to the closing page of the completed score and saw written instead a series of loud staccato chords!
The impetus which Ravel needed to complete the concerto came quite out of the blue with a communication from the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in the war. Undeterred, Wittgenstein set about commissioning works for left hand alone from several outstanding composers of the time, Ravel included. The challenge fired Ravel’s imagination at once, producing from him one of the mightiest and most powerful of all modern-day piano concertos, the one in D minor. This seems to have fuelled work on the slow-going G major Concerto (paradoxically the more lightweight of the two), which Ravel was now able to draw to conclusion quite quickly. The first movement, Allegramente, is a heady cocktail of diverse ideas jumped into action by an opening crack of the whip. Indeed, there is something of the circus in all of this, as Ravel the ringmaster parades before us a cavalcade of musical turns with the piano as the star (we understand why at one time Ravel toyed with calling this a divertissement rather than a concerto, even if by the end we are persuaded beyond doubt that it deserves the loftier title). Some glittering piano finger work and a shower of glissandi lead us to sections of jazzy syncopation featuring treacherous little solos for trumpet. The piano weaves its way forward, sharing many of its ideas with the orchestral instruments until eventually handing the limelight over to its sister instrument, the harp, in a wonderfully ethereal episode which harks back to the Introduction and Allegro of 1906.
Then comes a strange section which sounds like the piano version of a musical saw singing its woozy song, before the strings initiate a sweeping theme recalling Gershwin’s Rhapsody. The movement progresses with an enormous forward thrust which has the piano rushing headlong for the final bar while the orchestral forces seem to roar with laughter in a bid to keep up. Despite its extraordinary wealth of invention, Ravel’s grip on the reins of his material is so tight that the movement never sounds fragmentary: this is music which knows where it’s going every step of the way.
The central Adagio assai presents us with one of Ravel’s loveliest melodies, a long, serenely-unfolding song which rises to a passionate climax and ends in a gorgeous tapestry of woodwind solos and piano trills—possibly the same ones with which Ravel at one time considered ending the concerto. Amazingly, this is the movement, so seemingly effortless and spontaneous, that caused Ravel the most heartache. He wrestled with it, bar by bar, writing and re-writing until he finally felt satisfied: a classic case of art concealing art, and one which certainly bears out Ravel’s contention that inspiration is largely born out of backbreaking work. 'It almost killed me!', he said.
The race is on once more in the Presto finale, with echoes of the jazz sounds from the first movement raised to new, dizzying heights on shrieking woodwinds. The piano writing is dazzling here, its bouncing rhythms and rushing flurries of notes as demanding to execute as they are exhilarating. A crisp, martial burr of drums sees the concerto out with a flourish.
Cinq mélodies populaires grecques
In 1907, the writer and critic M D Calvocoressi asked a favour of his fellow Apache Ravel. Calvocoressi had been approached by the musicologist Pierre Aubry to supply translations from the Greek into French of some folk songs for a lecture Aubry was giving on the folk music of oppressed peoples. Calvocoressi in turn was keen to have Ravel arrange the songs for performance with piano accompaniment.
Ravel did his friend proud, bringing all of his expertise and imagination to bear on the task. He sank himself into the songs and gave them much more than straightforward settings, full of piquant and modern harmonic ideas. In fact, the composer brought so much of his own musical personality to the original melodies that they emerge as quintessential Ravel despite their authentic origins.
Ravel clearly relished this challenge, for it inspired him to do similar work on Spanish, French, Italian, Scottish and Hebrew melodies, as well as another Greek song, Tripatos. (Further songs, including one from Russia, are unfortunately lost.) The subsequent orchestrations were done jointly by Ravel and his pupil Manuel Rosenthal. In 'Là-bas, vers l’église', Rosenthal adds a vibraphone to the orchestra, an instrument employed only once by Ravel, in his final work Don Quichotte à Dulcinée.
Ma mère l’oye
Ravel adored children. Two of his special favourites were Mimi and Jean, whose parents Ida and Cyprien Godebski numbered amongst the composer’s closest friends. One day Ravel arrived on their doorstep bearing a gift under his arm. It was the piano duet Ma mère l’oye, which Ravel had dedicated to the children who so loved listening to his marvellous telling of the Mother Goose stories. He had composed it alongside his great piano masterpiece Gaspard de la nuit, in which he let loose a few devils to produce one of the most fiendish of all works for the keyboard. Almost as an antidote to its white-hot pages, Ma mère l’oye is all lightness and clarity. Ravel here evokes that rarefied atmosphere of fairytale magic by simplifying to the bare bones his style of composing—and the results are sublime.
There are five short movements. The 'Pavane de la belle au bois dormant' sets the tone at once: twenty brief measures of music lead the listener into a world of pure fantasy and make-believe.
'Petit poucet' represents Tom Thumb as he wends his way through the woods. Each repeat of the opening phrase is elongated by one step as little Tom takes yet another tiny stride forward. He seems to hum a walking tune as he leaves behind a trail of breadcrumbs in order to find his way home, pleasantly unaware that behind him, birds are flying down and gobbling them up. Ravel, like Tom Thumb himself, often walked in the woods near his home, drinking up the sounds of the birds and their music. We can find several instances in his work where, like here, Ravel recreates birdsong with great affection.
Next comes 'Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes', in which Ravel transports us to the mysterious East, with its pentatonic scales and Balinese gamelan-orchestra effects. The composer was fortunate to have been present at the first great Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1889 where, like Debussy, he was overwhelmed by the exoticism paraded by the fifty-odd participating nations. Here, the miniature oriental empress takes a bath accompanied by tunes played on lutes and viols made from nutshells.
If we are reminded of the music of Erik Satie in the fourth number, then it should come as no surprise: Ravel in his early days had been a protégé of the eccentric who haunted the nightclubs and cafes of Montmartre. Parisian musical institutions wrote Satie off as a clown, but Ravel became his most vigorous champion. By echoing Satie’s unique and original Gymnopédies in 'La Belle et de la Bête', Ravel pays the older musician the highest compliment. Here, Ravel’s musical storytelling is at its most graphic: the lovely theme which represents the beauty, the low, growling notes depicting the beast, and the magical transformation of the beast into a handsome prince—all of these are caught with a disarming and irresistible unforced charm.
But it is in the final movement, 'Le Jardin féerique', that Ravel presents us with one of his most heaven-sent creations: a slow movement of hushed power and beauty which, by the simplest of means, conjures up a breathtaking stillness, rising in its closing pages to a glittering cascade of sound—as if the entire fairy population of this enchanted garden has flown aloft to circle in unbridled rapture.
Three years after composing Ma mère I’oye, Ravel was prompted to orchestrate its five movements, and this he carried off with his usual supreme skill and imagination: the bird twitterings—chirruped by high violin glissandos and piccolo; the gamelan sounds—coloured by xylophone, glockenspiel and gong; the gruff contrabassoon giving voice to the beast; and the glorious writing for strings throughout, added new dimensions to the fantasy. Ravel subsequently expanded the suite into a complete ballet, adding a whole new number and many linking passages.
Grant Cathro © 2022