About this Recording
8.550683 - RAVEL: Piano Works, Vol. 1

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Piano Works, Vol. 1

La parade
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Sérénade grotesque
A la manière de Chabrier
A la manière de Borodine

Menuet antique

Jeux d'eau
Menuet sur le nom de Haydn

From his father, a Swiss engineer, Ravel inherited a delight in precision and incidentally in mechanical toys, while from his Basque mother he acquired a familiarity with something of Spanish culture. Born in the village of Ciboure in the Basque region of France in 1875, he spent his childhood and adolescence in Paris, starting piano lessons at the age of seven and from the age of fourteen studying piano in the preparatory piano class of the Conservatoire. He left the Conservatoire in 1895, after failing to win the necessary prizes, but resumed studies there three years later under Gabriel Fauré. His repeated failure to win the Prix de Rome, even when well established as a composer, disqualified in his fifth attempt in 1905, resulted in a scandal that led to changes in that august institution, of which Fauré then became director.

Ravel's career continued successfully in the years before 1914 with a series of works of originality, including important additions to the piano repertoire, to the repertoire of French song and, with commissions from Diaghilev, to ballet. During the war he was enlisted in 1915 as a driver and the war years left relatively little time and will for composition, particularly with the death of his mother in 1917. By 1920, however, he had begun to recover his spirits and resumed work, although now spasmodically, with a series of compositions, including an orchestration of La valse, rejected by Diaghilev, causing a rupture in their relations, and a number of engagements as a pianist and conductor in concerts of his own works at home and abroad. All this was brought to an end by his protracted final illness, attributed initially to a taxi accident in 1932, which led to his eventual death in 1937.

The piano piece La parade is a work of historical interest, rather than of any particular significance among Ravel's music for piano. It was written about the year 1898 for Antonine Meunière of the Paris Opéra, designed for interpretive dancing at home. Ravel was accustomed to improvise at the piano for the dancing of Isadora Duncan, and La parade may be considered a surviving example of this activity. It consists of a number of dances, including two marches, two waltzes and a mazurka.

The Pavane pour une infante defunte, its title chosen for euphony rather than for any other purpose, was written in 1899 and later orchestrated. Although a relatively minor work, it is among the most evocative of Ravel's compositions, in its nostalgic evocation of some remoter past, suggested by the rhythm of the old dance and the poignancy of its melodic line.

Ravel's Sérénade grotesque was written about the year 1893. As in the Pavane, there remains a detectable influence of Chabrier, as the composer himself later suggested. The Sérénade, its opening marked Très rude and pizzicatissimo, has about it an irony of intention in its dissonances and left-hand staccato leaps. It is followed by a pastiche of Chabrier, in the form of a suggestion of how Chabrier might have treated the flower song from Gounod's Faust. A la manière de Borodine is a quick waltz in the perceived style of the Russian composer, a reminder of the esteem in which the Russian nationalist composers were held by Ravel and his contemporaries. These two pieces were written in 1913. The Menuet antique of 1895 again reflects something of Chabrier and, like the later Pavane, evokes an earlier age.

Jeux d'eau (Fountains), written in 1901, is a work of a very different kind, exploring new possibilities for the piano. Performed in 1902 by Ricardo Viñes, in a programme that included the Pavane, the latter proved very much more acceptable to many of the audience, while Jeux d'eau seemed cacophonous. The score is headed by a quotation from 'Fête d'eau', a poem from Henri de Regnier's La cité des eaux: Dieu fluvial riant de l'eau qui Je chatouille (River god laughing at the water that tickles him). The work is based on two themes, which are extensively developed before their re-appearance, but the predominant impression is that of cascading arpeggios, a development of a technique earlier used by Liszt, not least in his 1883 Jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este. Ravel dedicated his composition to his teacher Fauré.

Ravel wrote his Menuet sur le nom de Haydn in 1909 in response to a commission from the editor of La revue musicale de la société musicale indépendante, Jules Ecorcheville, for an issue commemorating the centenary of the death of Haydn. For centuries composers had on occasions turned to some form of alphabetic cryptogram for musical themes. Most literally accessible among composers, Bach provided Liszt, among others, with the simple B-A-C-H (the German equivalent of the notes B flat, A, C and B natural). Haydn is not so easily translated into letter notation, but using an adapted Renaissance system the letters of his name were made to give B-A-D-D-G, and this motif appears in Ravel's Menuet in this order, and also in inversion and in retrograde form, concealed in its pastiche eighteenth century context. His Prélude was written in 1913 as a sight-reading test for women students at the Conservatoire. In spite of the occasion of its composition, it remains a gently evocative piece.

Ravel's Sonatine, a model of fastidious classicism that contrasts with his elaborate Jeux d'eau of 1901 and Miroirs, was completed in 1905. In harmonic language and melodic contour the sonatina is characteristic of the composer. It opens with a first theme marked doux et espressif, leading to a brief second subject, based on a modal C sharp, the dominant of the F sharp of the first subject. A classical development derives its opening from the codetta and goes on to make use of the principal thematic material of the exposition. The third section recapitulation, ushered in by a passage of passionate intensity, restores the serenity of the first theme, while the second theme re-appears now in the tonic major. The second movement takes the mood if not the form of a classical minuet, shifting subtly in tonality. The lively final movement transforms material of the first movement in a work that is motivically united and beautifully constructed, the descending fourth of the opening of the first movement providing a recurrent figure in this form or in its inversion. Two thematic elements of the opening of the last movement shift in tonality, before the re-appearance of a transformed version of the principal theme of the first movement, later changed still further in rhythm and contrasted with the dominant motif that marks the movement. The sonatina ends with a brilliant and still essentially modal F sharp major.

Miroirs was written in 1904 and 1905 and each of the five pieces that make up the work was dedicated to one of the 'Apaches', the name chosen by Ravel and his circle of friends that marked their unconventional attitude to established artistic traditions. Noctuelles (Night Moths), dedicated to the poet Leon-Paul Fargue, harmonically daring in its depiction of the moths of the title, is followed by Oiseaux tristes (Sad Birds), dedicated to Ricardo Viñes, music that draws its inspiration from the bird-calls with which the piece opens. Une barque sur l'ocean (A Ship on the Ocean), dedicated to the painter Paul Sordes, makes formidable technical demands, with its widespread arpeggios, through which the melodic line is always to be heard. This is followed by Alborada del gracioso (The Jester's Aubade), dedicated to the Greek-born Calvocoressi, a brilliant vision of Spain. Miroirs ends with La vallée des cloches (The Valley of the Bells), for Maurice Delage, one of Ravel's few pupils and four years his junior. In this last piece Ravel claimed the inspiration of the many church bells to be heard at noon in Paris. Here the bells are heard, at first tolling in the distance, in a piece of subtly suggestive beauty.

Keith Anderson

Close the window