Friday, March 08, 2013

Ravel's orchestral works

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the twentieth installment, I re-examine the orchestral works by Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937), one of the most famous French composers, taking my original CD's and a few I collected in more recent years.

Ouverture de feerie Sheherazade (1898)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1979, 15 min)
Not to be confused with the later gorgeous song cycle (his masterpiece imo), this is an early and rather obscure work - in fact it had been lost for many decades before resurfacing in the seventies. It is immediately identifiable as Ravel in spite of its unfamiliarity. It is also not a lost masterpiece, to be honest, and too long for its content. It warrants an occasional spin, but not more than that.

Pavane pour une infante defunte (1899/1910)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (CBS, 1972, 6 min)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1975, 6 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1986, 7 min)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1999, 7 min)
The Pavane for a dead (Spanish) princess is one of Ravel's most compelling works. It started as a piano work while he was still studying composition at the Conservatoire de Paris under Gabriel Faure, and was orchestrated eleven years later. The gorgeous lead melody, one of the most beautiful I have ever heard, is initially played by the horn in the orchestral version, an original and very effective choice. It is a work that in its honest simplicity can still choke me up after all these years.

Une barque sur l'ocean (1905/1906)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1974, 8 min)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1975, 8 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 8 min)
A boat on the ocean was originally one of the five piano pieces in the Miroirs suite, which was later orchestrated by Ravel. It is a beautiful maritime tone poem, painting a summer scene at the Mediterranean Sea in an almost Liszt-like style, and rivaling Debussy's La Mer in orchestral colours, if not in length.

Rapsodie Espagnole (1907/1908)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (CBS, 1972, 15 min)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Guilini (DG, 1980, 16 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 17 min)
Spain has influenced a number of Ravel's works, and the Spanish rhapsody perhaps most of all. Conceived as a piano suite, and orchestrated a year later. The slowish opening Prelude a la nuit with its haunting recurring four note theme and stunning orchestration is simply brilliant, the following short malaguena though feels a bit pedestrian in comparison. The Spanish theme continues with a slow habanera inspired by the sun caressing the landscape - a beautiful melodic movement. Ravel closes the composition festively with an upbeat Feria, which has great moments as well as more down-to-earth ones. All in all, a fascinating tone painting of Spain, rivaling the best of Spanish composers in this respect.

Daphnis et Chloe (1909)
Complete ballet:
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 55 min)
Montreal Symphony Orchestra/Dutoit (Decca, 1981, 56 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1994, 57 min)
Suite 1:
Minnesota Orchestra/Skrowaczewski (Vox, 1975, 13 min)
Suite 2:
Minnesota Orchestra/Skrowaczewski (Vox, 1975, 18 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1986, 15 min)
Perhaps his most ambitious work, and generally considered one of his best: this extensive ballet for choir and symphony orchestra in three scenes. It is a perfect study of impressionism in music, as much as Ravel hated that term. Apart from the full ballet score, Ravel also extracted two suites (sometimes called symphonic fragments). The first, containing Nocturne, Interlude and Danse guerriere, is performed rarely. The second, containing Lever du JourPantomime, and Danse generale, taken from the third scene, has become popular. Although I prefer to hear the whole work, these extended excerpts have considerable merit (especially the second one, which is the more coherent one, and has the most beautiful music of the ballet).

Ma mere l'oye (1908-1911)
Complete ballet:
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 27 min)
Minnesota Orchestra/Skrowaczewski (Vox, 1975, 30 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 28 min)
Orchestral version:
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Guilini (DG, 1980, 18 min)
There are three versions of the Mother Goose fairy tales music: it started life as five pieces for piano (four hands), which Ravel orchestrated later in the form of a ballet, adding a new prelude and a dance on the theme of a spinning wheel, and changing the sequence of the movements. In the most familiar (and probably best) version, a suite for orchestra, these two additions have been eliminated, and the original sequence has been re-established. This is undoubtedly beautiful music, elegantly orchestrated - yet, in the end I find it less compelling than most of his output.

Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911/1912)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1974, 15 min)
Minnesota Orchestra/Skrowaczewski (Vox, 1975, 18 min)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1994, 24 min)
This set of eight noble and sentimental waltzes were composed for piano, and orchestrated one year later. We are far from the Strauss family in mood, and in many ways they look forward to his later tone poem La valse. The highlight for me is the second waltz (assez lent), but the whole set definitely deserves the mark 'important'. It is remarkable how much variation Ravel creates in this set given the constraint of the waltz tempo.

Alborada del gracioso (1905/1918)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (CBS, 1972, 8 min)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1975, 8 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 8 min)
This Aubade of the fool was originally one of the five piano pieces in the Miroirs suite, which was later orchestrated by Ravel. After a boisterous opening, evoking Spanish fiesta atmosphere effectively, there is a tender farewell sequence, followed by more excitement. For some reason though it does not really appeal to me as much as most of his work.

Le tombeau de Couperin (1914/1919)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 17 min)
City of London Sinfonia/Hickox (Virgin, 1989, 17 min)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1999, 18 min)
The piano version of the grave of Couperin dates back to 1914, and the orchestration of four of its six movements followed five years later. In this work, Ravel looks back in some ways to 18th century French music, symbolized in the figure of Francois Couperin, without ever getting close to pastiche. The opening prelude is a vivid shimmering impressionist  masterpiece, followed by a chromatic forlane dance that is as lively, but just a tad more down to earth. The pastoral menuet lets the oboe shine in a movement that sound the least modern of the four. The closing rigaudon begins and ends with an animated dance, enclosing a beautiful oboe melody. A beautiful set, wonderfully orchestrated.

La valse (1920)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1974, 12 min)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 13 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1994, 14 min)
This symphonic poem, originally conceived as a ballet, has been called the most unexpected of Ravel's works. Even though Ravel explicitly stated that it was not meant as a reflection of post-war central Europe, it is easy to make that link. It gives a vision of the glorious Austrian past, with fragments of waltzes by Strauss and Schubert, distorted as if we are looking to the past through the mists of time. We are constantly reminded by Ravel that the waltz originally is a dance associated with death as well, and not just courtisanes whirling away and having fun. A stunning composition.

Tzigane (1924)
Itzhak Perlman and New York Philharmonic/Mehta (DG, 1987, 10 min)
Originally composed for violin and piano, Ravel quickly created a version for violin and orchestra as well. The title, the French word for gypsy, refers to the general sound world, rather than specific gypsy melodies - Ravel used his own ideas throughout. It is a brilliant showpiece, in the fashion if not the style of the likes of Paganini and Sarasate - and echt Ravel. Not among the very best in his oeuvre, but definitely strong.

Fanfare Eventail de Jeanne (1927)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1979, 2 min)
An oddity: the music for the children ballet L'eventail de Jeanne (Jeanne's fan) was a co-production between ten of the most famous French composers of the day, each scoring one dance in classic form. Ravel's contribution is the opening Fanfare, which is fun, and fits the occasion - but is really too lightweight to be of any significance.

Bolero (1928)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1974, 15 min)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1979, 15 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 15 min)
The general crowd's favourite, even though it is disliked by many classical music lovers. Granted, it has been overexposed in popular culture, but taken by itself, I think it is an excellent and highly original piece of music. There is no development: the haunting theme gets repeated obstinately whilst the orchestra gets more and more colour, until the coda closes it off relentlessly.

Menuet antique (1895/1929)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1975, 6 min)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 7 min)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1999, 7 min)
The piano version and the orchestration are 34 years apart, spanning the complete career of Ravel. Conceived as a tribute to Chabrier, the piece sounds as archaic as the title indicates, and it lacks the usual brilliancy in its orchestration. That said, it may be far from his best, but it is still worth having.

Piano concerto in D major [left hand] (1929)
Philippe Entremont with Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (CBS, 1973, 19 min)
Alicia de Larrocha and London Philharmonic Orchestra/Foster (Decca, 1974, 19 min)
Krystian Zimmerman and London Symphony Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1996, 18 min)
Like Prokofievs fourth, which was discussed in the previous installment, this one movement concerto for the left hand only was commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Undoubtedly  it is one of the important piano concertos of all time - regardless of how many hands. It is an energetic piece, reflecting the time it was conceived in many ways, with fantastic orchestral parts as well as superb piano lines, from melodious to percussive, and typical Ravel throughout. A fascinating concerto, absolutely essential.

Piano concerto in G major (1929)
Alicia de Larrocha and London Philharmonic Orchestra/Fruhbeck de Burgos (Decca, 1974, 24 min)
Krystian Zimmerman and Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1994, 22 min)
One of the last great piano concertos, for sure. Starting stunningly with a whiplash sound, the first movement is energetic, jazzy (in Ravel style), and beautiful. The introspective, gorgeous second movement, one of the most beautiful in the history of all concertos, is like a glimpse of heaven, and then the third brings us back on earth, with more jazz-influenced writing to enjoy, in what has been likened to a wall of sound. It is a roller coaster ride, exhilarating and all-consuming - and it makes you want to hit the repeat from start button for the whole concerto. The two piano concertos are completely different - and both indispensable. If I had to make a choice, I'd pick the one in G major, but is awfully close, and both are very, very close to hors concours.

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:
Hors concours: None.
Essential: Pavane pour une infante defunte, Daphnis et Chloe, La valse, Piano concerto in D major [left hand], Piano concerto in G major.
Important: Valses nobles et sentimentales, Le tombeau de Couperin, Une barque sur l'ocean, Rapsodie Espagnole, Tzigane, Bolero.
Good to have: Ma mere l'oye, Alborada del gracioso, Menuet antique.
Not required: Ouverture de feerie Sheherazade, Fanfare Eventail de Jeanne.
Avoid: None.