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Ravel: Mother Goose & La valse; Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Yuri Temirkanov (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: July 2010
Great Philharmonic Hall, St Petersburg, Russia
Produced by Anna Barry
Engineered by Neil Hutchinson
Release date: May 2013
Total duration: 64 minutes 9 seconds

Contrasting pieces by two masters of orchestral composition, these live performances capture the energy and movement of three much-loved balletic works; Ravel's intricate vignettes of childrens' stories in Mother Goose and 'choreographic poem' La valse, and Stravinsky's epoch-defining Rite of Spring.

One of the oldest professional orchestras in Russia, the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra can trace its lineage back to 1882 and its formation by Tsar Alexander III. In a 25-year collaboration, Yuri Temirkanov has been the orchestra's principal conductor since 1988.


'Whilst I’ve been away there have been a few new album releases that I am only just catching up on. There are two new ones on Signum Records. The first, Sometimes I Sing by composer Alec Roth, is a haunting disc of music for tenor (Marc Padmore) and guitar (Morgan Szymanski) to texts by Thomas Wyatt, Vikram Seth, John Donne and Edward Thomas. The music has a jewel-like simplicity that owes much to folk idioms. Padmore’s singing is mesmerizingly beautiful. The second is another new recording of Le Sacre du Printemps, this time programmed with Ravel’s La Valse and Mother Goose. It is performed by St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Termirkanov' (Composition Today)

'There are episodes of exquisite natural beauty and organic sounds. What’s missing is Bernstein’s abandon, but the details are delicious' (Sinfini Music)» More
Maurice Ravel was ever drawn to the pictorial and theatrical possibilities of music, indeed a good many of his works were prompted by extra-musical influences, ranging from Greek legends to children’s stories. A meticulous composer and detailed, sophisticated orchestrator, Ravel was often painstakingly slow in completing his orchestral compositions. The results, however, were always well worth the wait—producing some of the finest, most intricately orchestrated jewels of the repertoire. The ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, for example, occupied Ravel between 1909, when first commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for his company, the Ballets Russes, until the middle of 1912. As a measure of Ravel’s thoroughness, during the same time period, Diaghilev commissioned and produced two Stravinsky ballets, The Firebird and Petrushka, with the young Russian composer already finishing a third, the infamous Rite of Spring by the time Daphnis was performed. However, Ravel’s work ethic prevailed and most of his output, unlike that of many of his contemporaries, remains solidly in the repertoire the world over.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite (Ma mère l’oye) was initially composed for the children of cultivated friends, Cipa and Ida Godebski, themselves dedicatees of his piano Sonatine. The youngsters, Mimie and Jean were at the early stages of piano lessons, and Ravel, who was at least as happy in the company of young children as he was with adults, clearly spoiled his new friends, with gifts of toys and, indeed, music. Much later in life, Mimie set down her memories of the composer:

Of all my parents’ friends I had a predilection for Ravel, because he used to tell me stories that I loved. I used to climb on his knee and indefatigably he would begin ‘Once upon a time …’ And it was Laideronnette, Beauty and the Beast and, above all, the adventures of a poor mouse … Between 1906 and 1908 we used to have long holidays at my parents’ house in the country … It was there that Ravel finished, or at least brought us, Ma mère l’oye. But neither I nor my brother was of an age to appreciate such a dedication and we regarded it as something entailing hard work. Ravel wanted us to give the first performance, but the idea filled me with cold terror.

Ravel was a tremendous pianist and perhaps his enthusiasm had rather won over the practicalities of such young, and clearly not overly keen children giving a world premiere. Although he took pains to make sure that young hands would be able to cope with the pianistic demands of the Suite, Mimie and Jean did not give the premiere, and the duty was duly taken over by two more confident and competent children, Jeanne Leleu and Geneviève Durony, in April 1910. The following year, at the behest of his publisher Durand, Ravel orchestrated the suite and this eventually led to the idea of the work being extended into a ballet. The original orchestral version, performed here, presents the suite as it was originally intended, as five short, beguilingly crystalline visions of childhood.

The literary sources of the suite stem from the delightful stories of Charles Perrault and Countess Marie d’Aulnoy, remarkable individuals who both can lay claim as founders of the modern fairy tale. The first piece ‘The Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane’ is as brief as it is thoughtful and dreamlike, evoking the sleeping princess watched over by the good fairy. ‘Petit Poucet’ depicts Tom Thumb, his haphazard route through the forest portrayed by the oboe, sprinkling breadcrumbs behind him as he wanders into the dangers of the forest, while the birds sneak up behind him, tweeting their joy at the unexpected snack. ‘Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas’, conjures up the princess, disfigured by a horrid witch’s spell. She meets the similarly blighted green dragon, and together they venture forth, encountering animated pagodas which sing and perform for the pair, Ravel conjuring up an oriental, pentatonic world beautifully in the percussion section. ‘Conversations of Beauty and the Beast’, the most famous movement of the suite, sees this unlikely couple represented by high and low woodwinds, respectively. With the clash of cymbals, the beast transforms once again into a prince, and they pair off as a solo violin and cello to lovingly end the waltz. ‘The Fairy Garden’ concludes the work with the charming prince awakening the sleeping beauty and closes this most marvellous summation of the mystery and magic of the fairy tale.

Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo. Set in an imperial court, about 1855.

Thus Ravel lays out the scenario for La valse in the published score of 1920, but all is not quite as delightful as it seems. The composer had thoughts about the piece as early as 1906 in praise of the waltz king Johann Strauss II, which would be an, ‘apotheosis of the Viennese waltz’ and would incorporate within it, ‘the fantastic whirl of destiny’. The early sketches for the work named as Wien (Vienna) came to little, though Ravel did pay homage to the dance in his Valses nobles et sentimentales of 1911. It was not until after the First World War, during which he volunteered as a driver in the transport corps after several refusals on health grounds for other active enlistings, that he re-engaged with his Strauss tribute. But now the world and the waltz had changed. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had fallen, Ravel’s adored mother had died suddenly in 1917 and his experience of war must have coloured his view of the frivolity of a 19th-century dance in the bloody nightmare of the 20th century.

In 1919, Ravel again set to work on the project, at the request of impresario Sergei Diaghilev who was considering its inclusion in his Ballets Russes season of 1920, despite the lukewarm receptions of Ravel’s previous Ballets Russes venture, Daphnis et Chloé, in 1912. Ravel completed the work with uncharacteristic speed, but as Diaghilev listened to a play-through of La valse, the young Francis Poulenc recalled:

Ravel played La valse with Marcelle Meyer … Now at the time I knew Diaghilev very well … and I saw the false teeth begin to move, then the monocle, I saw he was embarrassed, I saw he didn’t like it … He said, ‘Ravel, it’s a masterpiece, but it’s not a ballet. It’s the portrait of a ballet. It’s the painting of a ballet.

In a move which much impressed the young Poulenc, Ravel unperturbed, quietly picked up his music, departed the room calmly, and never worked with Diaghilev again. Perhaps both impresario and composer were correct, in hindsight. La valse is certainly a masterpiece and Ravel did subtitle the work, in publication, as Un poème choréographique and it was duly premiered in Paris, December 1920, with the Orchestre Lamoureux. Despite being a success in the concert hall, it failed as a ballet until George Balanchine paired it with Valses nobles et sentimentales for the New York City Ballet, in 1951.

The piece opens like a musical version of an archaeological excavation; glimpses of waltz rhythm are unearthed, followed by distant almost half-remembered melodic fragments seeking to be re-united. Gradually, the dance begins to form, heralded by the harp. A concise reconstruction of waltz variations follows and the work is set for a glorious climax until, as Lincoln Kirstein observed, ‘the big themes shatter, rhythms dissolve, a persistent beat grows tenuous, and as a succession of feverish motifs dissolve, the climax becomes chaos.’ Although Ravel did not subscribe to the notion of La valse describing a Europe in turmoil or decay, the waltz, at least, disappears before our eyes, as its very definition, the three-beat pulse is itself destroyed in the last two measures.

Igor Stravinsky was one of those present in the room when La valse was damned with great praise by Diaghilev. In fact, Poulenc’s reminiscence of the occasion ends with the observation, ‘But the extraordinary thing was, Stravinsky said not a word!’ Certainly Stravinsky was rarely short of a quote or two, describing Ravel on various occasions as an orchestrator as fastidious as a ‘Swiss clock-smith’, as ‘ordinary’ compared to Satie, and (alongside Rimsky-Korsakov and Berlioz) as an orchestrator of note, but, ‘not the best composer’. Stravinsky’s remarks are often to be taken with varying amounts of salt; he also thought of Ravel as the only musician to immediately comprehend The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps), and was a great admirer of his efforts during the First World War, noting his age and esteemed position in France. The two composers indeed had a brief friendship and, by way of the extraordinary Diaghilev, even collaborated on a performing version of Mussorgsky’s incomplete opera, Khovanshchina, in March-April 1913, in Switzerland, a matter of weeks before the infamous premiere of The Rite of Spring on 29th May 1913.

The most incorrigible, indefatigable supremo of the ballet world in the 20th century, Sergei Diaghilev had little problem bending most composers to his bidding. He cajoled, charmed and coerced not only Stravinsky and Ravel, but Debussy, Satie, Richard Strauss, De Falla, Prokofiev—a mighty handful of the early 20th century’s greatest talents, to compose for his company. Diaghilev’s firm, guiding hand and his steady stream of exceptional dancers, choreographers, set designers and artists—Pavlova, Karsavina, Nijinsky, Fokine, Massine, Picasso, Bakst and Roerich included—formed his groundbreaking and super-talented Ballets Russes. Diaghilev knew not only how to acquire the best talent, but how to hold them together, keep them working and, most importantly, how to promote his seasons. The Spring of 1913 would be one of his finest creations.

Stravinsky had already been guided by Diaghilev to produce The Firebird and Petrushka, which were great successes in the 1910 and 1911 seasons. For the 1913 season, the 29-year-old composer had completed Vesna svyashchennaya, the initial idea coming to him, ‘while I was still composing The Firebird. I had dreamed a scene of pagan ritual in which a chosen sacrificial virgin danced herself to death.’ Working his material into two parts, the work was eventually completed in Clarens, Switzerland, 1912.

The most famous and beloved riot in recent musical history ensued at the Rite’s opening night on 29th May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. The venue was not a venerable institution, but a new-build of only a few weeks, which had a rather functional feel when compared to the luxuries to be found in the established Parisian theatres. Like Hendrix at Woodstock, or Callas at Covent Garden, everybody, whether they were anybody or not, seems to have been in attendance. Anger, excitement, confusion and scuffle was the order of the day: the initial folksong-based bassoon introduction, the vicious, non-balletic stamping chords, the ‘knock-kneed, long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down’ to Nijinsky’s controversial choreography, the scenario and tent-like costumes by Roerich, the audience cliques’ goading, the ill-feeling of the Parisian public toward recent avant garde Russian influence in the ballet—all have been blamed for the punch-ups, cock-ups and calamities of the night. Stravinsky himself was also bright with anger, and he knew what was on offer. It seems that Pierre Monteux, the conductor, was the only unflappable presence in the theatre, calmly guiding the orchestra through to the end, Stravinsky praising him as ‘nerveless as a crocodile’. Some sources suggest that many of the major players in the Ballets Russes were clear that uproar was inevitable. Certainly not a situation Diaghilev would have lost any sleep over.

The succeeding Ballets Russes performances were, of course, sold out, and the following year Stravinsky rejoiced in a concert performance at the Casino de Paris which he described as ‘a triumph such as composers rarely enjoy … At the end of the Danse sacrale the entire audience jumped to its feet and cheered’ and the composer was carried to the local square in celebration. Newspaper headlines were equally good news marketing for Diaghilev, composer and company, Le Ménestrel punning with the ‘Massacre du printemps’ and New York Times joined the fray with ‘Russian Dancer’s Latest Offering—The Consecration of Spring—A Failure’. Success for the work was guaranteed.

The Rite of Spring is still regarded as the touchstone for all approachable modernist music, and it never disappoints. Its cleverly constructed concatenation of rhythms, folksong and brilliant, brutalist orchestration quickly removed it from the ballet and installed it as a concert hall favourite, which over the years has, in the right hands, lost none of its bite. Stravinsky himself was well aware that this was a work without sequel, and in time, he added to the mystique and his own ritual part in its creation:

I was guided by no system whatever in Le sacre du printemps. When I think of the other composers of that time who interest me—Berg, who is synthetic (in the best sense), Webern, who is analytic, and Schoenberg, who is both—how much more theoretical their music seems than Le sacre; and these composers were supported by a great tradition, whereas very little immediate tradition lies behind Le sacre du printemps. I had only my ear to help me. I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le sacre passed.

M Ross © 2013

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