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Maurice Ravel
Le Tombeau de Couperin
[ 1 ] I. Prélude
[ 2 ] II. Forlane
[ 3 ] III. Menuet
[ 4 ] IV. Rigaudon

Valses nobles et sentimentales
[ 5 ] I. Modéré
[ 6 ] II. Assez lent
[ 7 ] III. Modéré
[ 8 ] IV. Assez animé
[ 9 ] V. Presque lent
[10] VI. Assez vif
[11] VII. Moins vif
[12] VIII. Epilogue

Rapsodie Espagnole
[13] I. Prélude à la nuit
[14] II. Malagueña
[15] III. Habanera
[16] IV. Feria

[17] Une barque sur l´océan

[18] Pavane pour une infante défunte

Marc Soustrot – conductor
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra

Maurice Ravel © Peter Quantrill
For Ravel, as for Beethoven and Stravinsky, the craft of composition was an essentially pianistic endeavour: he once remarked to his student Vaughan Williams that ‘without a piano one cannot
invent new harmonies’. Orchestration, he said, concerns ‘transferring the effect of both pedals of the piano – i.e. creating an atmosphere of sound around the music, around the written notes.’
And so it is often forgotten that Ravel composed only a single purely orchestral work intended primarily for the concert hall, and even that contains a movement written originally for two pianos. Aside from the Rapsodie espagnole, all the works on this album were transcribed from their original solo-piano form. The genre of ‘Impressionism’ has proved useful for enclosing any number of art-works that do not belong there, which may also explain why it has become synonymous with a vagueness inimical to the progenitors of the aesthetic.

Ravel himself only became an Impressionist when writing for orchestra, in the Rapsodie and in the ballet score for Daphnis et Chloé. Elsewhere his train of thought led to the kind of precise delineation of image and mood exemplified by the rocking of the boat in Une barque sur L’océan. By contrast, there is no definite theme to the Rapsodie’s opening ‘Prélude à la nuit’. Indeed it is precisely the sensation of mystery, of not knowing what is being described, that the music evokes with its inexorable sliding scale, like a passacaglia, around which Ravel wraps a series of
shimmering tints and louring, ominously suggestive flourishes. This sliding scale recurs in the second and fourth movements of the Rapsodie. Momentum is further arrested by a couple of cadenzas; the first of them scored for two clarinets over a sustained chord in the strings and harp, while the second is a similar figure performed by a pair of bassoons.
For the following ‘Malagueña’, Ravel adds castanets, Basque drum, military drum and cymbals to the score. Ravel establishes the atmosphere of the bullring with a figure on muted trumpet. The form describes a dance associated with the cafes and streets of the southern city of Malaga. The potential for violence, entirely latent in the Prélude, now erupts from time to time like a scuffle. As with La valse, Ravel composes not just the dance but the world it comes from and lives in, and suggestion of the Prélude returns towards the close. The scene is set for the one originally pianistic movement of the Rapsodie, a slow and voluptuous Habanera which Ravel had written in 1895 as one of two pieces for two pianos, Les sites auriculaires. The closing festivities of ‘Feria’, and its authentic ‘jota’ rhythm, gradually emerge from the seductive strains of the Habanera. Again, Ravel paints in sound not only the party itself but its participants, with the drunken slides of the strings to introduce and punctuate a more withdrawn (hungover?) middle section. It is difficult to believe that this is the kind of music to cause a riot, but the scandalous premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre was partially anticipated in March 1908, when Ravel led the orchestra of the Colonne concert society in the premiere of the Rapsodie, Edouard
Colonne having declared himself too old to do the music justice. While those in the cheap seats upstairs demanded an encore of the ‘Malagueña’, the audience downstairs gave vent to piercing
disapproval. The voice of the composer Florent Schmitt struggled to make itself heard above the din, to demand that the movement be repeated for the benefit principally of those downstairs who had not yet understood it.

The grave mood of the Pavane pour une infante défunte has encouraged many listeners to think of it as an elegy, like a slighter musical version of a Velásquez portrait. Ravel himself described it as ‘an evocation of a pavane that a little princess [Infanta] might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court’. On the other hand, when once asked about the origin of the title, he
replied: ‘Do not be surprised, that title has nothing to do with the composition. I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c’est tout.’ The piano original was written in 1899, when Ravel was still a student, and then orchestrated in 1910.

In the meanwhile, the composer had achieved a breakthrough with Jeux d’eau of 1904, and then the Miroirs of 1904-5, in which he extends his harmonic and pianistic language with five pieces, each dedicated to one of his artist friends in their group of ‘Apaches’. They gathered every week to talk and smoke and play through music, hosted initially by the painter Paul Sordes. Ravel dedicated Une barque sur l’océan to Sordes as the central panel of Miroirs, and orchestrated it as an independent piece within months. He paints the movement of the boat with the theme initially presented by the flute, but the indication of ‘d’un rythme souple’ guides both players and listeners alike to focus on the unpredictable swell of the ocean which glistens and shimmers on strings and exquisitely restrained percussion.

In an autobiographical sketch from 1928, Ravel explained that the Valses nobles et sentimentales had emerged from his ‘intention of composing a series of waltzes in imitation of Schubert’. According to the pianist Vlado Perlemuter, who studied the Valses nobles with the composer in 1927, Ravel recommended that the fifth number be played ‘in the spirit of a waltz by Schubert’; the adjective ‘simple’ that the composer wrote into Perlemuter’s score clarifies what Ravel might have understood this ‘spirit’ to be. What seems more likely is that Ravel was inspired to compose it in 1911 by the discovery or rediscovery of Liszt’s ‘valses-caprices after Schubert’, the Soirées de Vienne. There are unmistakable echoes of Johann Strauss II in Waltzes 4 and 7, while No.3 seems to look back at Liszt’s Valses oubliées, and No.7 incorporates several aspects of Fauré’s Valses-caprices; all of which would seem to justify Marguerite Long’s claim that the title refers not only to Schubert but ‘without doubt to all others’.
For an epigraph to the score, Ravel borrowed a quotation from the preface to a contemporary novel by Henri de Régnier. The author refers to ‘the delicious and ever novel pleasure of a useless occupation’ while drawing parallels which Ravel would readily have responded to between the concern for appearances exhibited by 18th-century aristocratic society, and contemporary
preoccupations with the pleasure of aesthetic craft for its own sake (see also Proust). In 1912, Ravel accepted a commission to orchestrate the Valses nobles for a ballet, which he titled Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs. Ravel’s own scenario involves a soirée that takes place at a courtesan’s salon in 1820 in Paris, rather than Vienna.

Ravel’s interest in the work of his predecessors, whether working in 1720s Paris or 1820s Vienna, was not a matter of mere antiquarianism. In the spring of 1914, Ravel mentioned in a letter that he was transcribing a forlane by François Couperin, and by October he had decided to incorporate his own forlane into a Suite française, as what became his last set of pieces written for the piano. Then his friends began to die in the trenches, and a retrospective gaze at the French dance suite took on more immediate significance. Ravel stated that the homage implicit in Le tombeau de Couperin was ‘in reality less to Couperin alone than to French music of the 18th century.’ Thus the tenor of Le tombeau de Couperin is upbeat. Private grief is expressed primarily through the dedication of each piece to the memory of a friend killed in the First World War. When the war was over, he orchestrated four of the suite’s six movements, omitting the most purely pianistic pieces, re-ordering the others and lending the new suite a character of its own in the process. With its running semiquaver figurations in 12/16, the Prelude translates a harpsichord device into pianistic terms. Though the texture is continuous, the piece is in binary form, modulating from E minor to its relative G major – then back to E minor in rapid sequences in the second half, when the figuration is liberated in cascading thirds. In the Forlane, E minor is disguised behind a mask of ornamentation, harmonically updated from Couperin’s example: persistently unresolved appoggiaturas and augmented-fifth chords. Ravel retained the rondeau form (ABACADA) from Couperin’s model while staining it with new varnish in the harmony. The Minuet is a piece of fairy-princess, Mother-Goose escapism, all the more palpably so in its orchestrated version, even while the central musette (refined beyond all recognition from its rustic origins) brings with it a hint of the Dies irae plainchant before overlapping with the return of the minuet. The closin g Rigaudon owes its origins to the ‘Première tambourin’ from Rameau’s Troisième concert, where the correspondence is again articulated via the rhythmic gesture.

RELEASE DATE: JUNE 2024

CATALOGUE NUMBER: DACOCD 982

EAN: 570949998206