About this Recording
GP696 - STRAVINSKY, I. / RAVEL, M. / GERSHWIN, G.: Transcriptions and Original Piano Works (Ferrand-N'Kaoua)
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Stravinsky, Ravel, Gershwin
Transcriptions and original piano works

 

St Petersburg, Paris and New York; Stravinsky, Ravel and Gershwin: three composers from three cultural capitals, three cosmopolitan musicians who knew and admired one another. Each in his own way made a key contribution to the astonishing wealth of artistic production that characterized the first quarter of the twentieth century. Despite the profoundly traumatic impact of the First World War and Russian Revolution, creativity flourished during this period, every new masterpiece conquering fields hitherto unknown to musicians and artists in general.

The works by Stravinsky and Ravel featured on this album were both written for the celebrated Ballets russes’ extraordinary Paris seasons, but soon became part of the standard symphonic repertoire. As for Gershwin’s music, its universal success was part of the injection into the centuries-old tradition of Western music of fresh, transatlantic blood.

Performing these masterpieces on the piano may seem to be attempting the impossible. What the process offers, however, above and beyond the technical challenge, is the opportunity to present one individual musician’s subjective, unmediated vision of the music. It involves diving into an opulent, colourful soundworld and re-creating it on the keyboard by means of nuance and characterization, as naturally as if the work in question had been designed for the piano all along.

Playing a piece written for one instrument (or several different instruments) on another is a practice probably as old as music itself. Before records and the radio, it was the piano that allowed the imagination to soar, thanks in part to its own rich repertoire, but also to the huge number of transcriptions and arrangements made for it—a genre taken to its limits by Liszt, with his transformations of works such as Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

The piano still provides the ideal way to take in the essence of a work in a single glance. In the equivalent of filming a crowd scene, it knows just how to alternate wide shots and close-ups, the grand and the smaller scale. It has its own ways of evoking different instrumental colours and, as Liszt noted, can bring out the many nuances of orchestral light and shade.

Paris, 29 May 1913: the date on which an artistic explosion took place on stage at the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, in what turned out to be the century’s most riotous theatrical first night. The man responsible for the scandal of Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), and for the fact that it is still remembered today was Serge Diaghilev, visionary producer of the Ballets russes, whose Paris seasons, between 1910 and 1929, called upon the finest avant-garde artists of the day. Figures such as Satie, Debussy, Prokofiev, Picasso, Matisse, Fokine, Balanchine and Cocteau all played their part in the company’s success, as did star dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, with his original and innovative balletic idiom, and artist Nicholas Roerich, with his stunning set and costume designs. On that night in 1913, however, even though his music was drowned out by the uproar of the near-rioting crowd, the man at the heart of the action was composer Igor Stravinsky. Within the space of a mere three years this genius, still barely into his thirties, had undergone an incredible evolution. He had already provided Diaghilev with two highly impressive ballet scores, The Firebird and Petrushka, but after Le Sacre music would never be the same again.

Subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russia”, Le Sacre is sophisticated and wild in equal measure, as well as expressing the spirit of the huge folk legacy of Russia and the Baltic States. Divided into two parts, this large-scale work was inspired by a vision Stravinsky had of an ancient pagan rite, in which a young girl was being sacrificed to propitiate the gods of spring and allow new life to emerge—a basic, tribal plotline which gave rise to a masterpiece of universal scope.

The music opens up a Pandora’s box, setting free the essential urges hidden within its depths. Without being descriptive in nature, it takes us back to the origins of mankind, or perhaps to the origins of music. Incidentally, in 1937, it was used to illustrate the sequence depicting the creation of the universe and primordial life on earth in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Leonard Bernstein, meanwhile, spoke in terms of “prehistoric jazz” when describing the formidable leaps and bounds of the final Sacrificial Dance. Le Sacre is a melting-pot of innovations, anticipating many future developments from both Stravinsky himself and others. There is, of course, its use of sharp, asymmetrical rhythms, the dislocated accents that burst in towards the end of the introduction with the Dances of the Adolescents; but there are also the refined sonorities of the opening of Part Two (The Sacrifice), whose harmony foreshadows Messiaen, and, above all, the way in which the orchestral instruments seem to proliferate, divided into ever-changing groups, each apparently animated by a life of its own.

Stravinsky confessed that he had played his early ideas for The Rite on the piano at first, not knowing how to notate them on paper. Once the work was finished, he published a version for two pianos or piano four hands (even before the orchestral score was issued), but he never arranged it for solo piano. Arthur Rubinstein was probably the first to give a private performance of Le Sacre on piano—to the composer’s great surprise—but he never published his transcription. Stravinsky later dedicated his own piano version of the Three Movements from Petrushka (1921) to Rubinstein. The remarkable arrangement of Le Sacre heard here, premiered in 1979 at New York’s Carnegie Hall by Dickran Atamian, was created by American composer Sam Raphling.

Ravel had first begun sketching a homage to Johann Strauss II—a kind of “apotheosis of the waltz”—as early as 1906, but only completed the work, entitling it La Valse, years later when Diaghilev commissioned him to write a score for the Ballets russes. His homage—by no means a pastiche—may have originally been inspired by a ball at Vienna’s imperial court, but gradually draws us into the whirling, hallucinatory world of a very individual musical idiom.

La Valse was not Ravel’s first collaboration with Diaghilev and the Ballets russes: several years earlier, in 1912, the company had given the premiere of his Daphnis et Chloé (a few days after that of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune). Ravel had been at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées for the first night of Le Sacre du printemps, and become embroiled in the uproar, hailing the genius of his friend Stravinsky, whom he later also defended in the press. This may be why he could not forgive the latter’s tactful silence when Diaghilev, having heard the first run-through of La Valse in its two-piano arrangement (at which Stravinsky, among others, was also present), declared, “Ravel, it’s a masterpiece, but it isn’t a ballet It’s a painting of a ballet.” Ravel took the score and left without a word.

This marked the end of his association with the Ballets russes, but not his exit from the world of dance. A few years later, Nijinska (sister of Nijinsky) choreographed La Valse for the Ida Rubinstein company, for whom Ravel later also wrote his most famous work, Boléro. As a gift for all pianists, he also created the hugely challenging transcription of La Valse recorded here.

Ravel often borrowed from jazz, if in a very stylized manner (as in his Piano Concerto in G or the “Blues” movement in the Sonata for violin and piano), as did Stravinsky (see, for example, his Ragtime or the Ebony Concerto). Although never steeped in the genre to the extent that Gershwin was, both composers took a serious interest in the jazz music of the day. (Legend has it that, in what would be a rather fitting turn of events were it true, Gershwin approached both Stravinsky and Ravel for lessons, but in vain…) After the First World War, jazz became increasingly popular in Europe, and France in particular, thanks to live performances in nightclubs and dance halls and to records. Jazz may just be one of the best things that ever happened to music…

In the last century, as Europe was riven by war, America was unselfconsciously developing its own strand of popular music that drew on a broad range of different cultures but primarily that of the African Americans. The spirit of the blues, seemingly an inherent part of US life, was fused with hit songs written by composers and lyricists often of Central European origins. One such was George Gershwin—he himself was born in Brooklyn in 1898, but his parents were recent immigrants from Russia.

The piano was his instrument—he played it with a sense of joy, natural elegance, laconic simplicity and rhythmical precision—and yet he wrote surprisingly few standalone piano pieces. He became known for large-scale works such as An American in Paris, the Concerto in F and the opera Porgy and Bess (whose orchestration at times displays striking echoes of Stravinsky), as well as for the huge number of songs he wrote for Broadway and Hollywood. Several of these soon became jazz standards, and therefore the basis for personal arrangements and improvisations dreamed up by performers themselves.

Gershwin did publish piano arrangements of songs such as The Man I Love and I Got Rhythm, but his Preludes are something of a case apart in the way that their writing is so perfectly tailored to the solo instrument. All three are concise, to the point of abruptness in the case of the third (sometimes known as the Spanish Prelude, although it is actually more evocative of Cuban music), and are essentially American “aquarelles” (watercolours), especially the second, Blue Lullaby, which conjures up 1920s Manhattan to perfection.

Rhapsody in Blue (1924) was commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman. Aware of the young composer’s gifts, Whiteman asked him to write a jazz-influenced piece for piano and orchestra—a work that would bring jazz into the concert hall. Gershwin wrote the Rhapsody in the space of barely five weeks, leaving the task of orchestrating it for the twenty or so members of the Whiteman band to their regular arranger Ferde Grofé (who in later years created two further versions for larger orchestras).

What could have been more natural for Gershwin than to compose quickly and fluently at the piano, noting down the solo part, of course, but also the elements that would then be allotted to the orchestral instruments. The present recording is based on that score, rediscovered and published in New York a few years ago, although it draws on a number of earlier editions as well.

The Rhapsody in Blue skilfully plays with inflections borrowed from jazz and blues music, particularly the famous “blue notes” that add a melancholy tinge to a major scale. It romps through various melodic ideas, each of which alone would justify the enormous popularity it has enjoyed ever since its première. Gershwin himself recalled that he was inspired, during a journey to Boston, by the “steely rhythms” and “rattlety-bang” of the train, and began to hear his new composition as “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness”.


Eric Ferrand-N’Kaoua
English translation by Susannah Howe


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