An homage to Maurice Ravel. Sure, he has his devotees, but his music should be still more widely admired—somehow he doesn’t quite conform to the revolutionary narrative of 20th-century music.

Radio 3’s Ravel day was great.

How exquisite is Shéhérazade (see also here, here, and here)! Both Klingsor’s poems and Ravel’s gorgeous music—orientalizing but irresistible. I guess I’m part of a generation that grew up enchanté by Janet Baker’s LP, also including Berlioz’s Nuits d’été:

Written as early as 1903 (Nichols, Ravel, p.57),

Ravel himself always had a high regard for the work. Over twenty years later he told his pupil Maurice Rosenthal, “In some years from now, you will have learned everything about composition, but there is something that is impossible to keep, and that is the freshness of youth. And you have to regret it all your life. And I said, “But about your own music, what would be the freshness of youth you have lost after a while?” And immediately he said, “Shéhérazade. It’s full of things that I am ashamed today to have written. But there is something in this composition that I have never found again.”

And hearing Boulez conducting the complete Daphnis and Chloe (don’t merely rest content with the suites!) was another formative experience of my youth.

L’enfant et les sortilèges too is enchanting (Nichols pp.263–70):

We used to do the Piano Trio in a programme with Messiaen’s Quartet for the end of time, a perfect combo!

Of the two contrasting piano concertos, written simultaneously. the slow movement of the G major concerto (here with the divine Hélène Grimaud)

What appears to be a conservative style is anything but, with its constant ambiguity in metre, harmony, and melody.

This leads to Bill Evans’s Blue in green, in Miles Davis’s Kind of blue:

(1959—there’s another year to reflect on global events…)

The concerto for the left hand is very different—also jazzy, but often sombre, violent, nightmarish.

Boléro was soon to become something of a millstone for Ravel. But while we can’t unhear Torvill and Dean, it is (should be) an irresistibly visceral experience—all the more so at the controlled tempo that Ravel stipulated (Nichols, Ravel, pp. 297–303). In Donald Macleod’s fine Composer of the Week on Ravel, among all the spinoffs of Boléro, the final programme features Jos van Immerseel’s recording with Anima Eterna, all 17 minutes of it (though still not as long as Celibidache’s version): [1]

Such a version is just as fascinating in its way as the reconstruction of The Rite of Spring. Far from its cute image, it can evoke “the repetitive obsession that opens out on to notions of death, madness, destruction, and annihilation, as if the composer had had an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world” (cited in Nichols, Ravel, p.301).

And then there’s La valse. It’s not just a waltz! And like Boléro or Daphnis and Chloe, it’s not a cosy “orchestral showpiece”—it’s a surreal nightmarish vision of a decaying society through a broken kaleidoscope. As Alex Ross comments (The rest is noise, p.121), it evokes

a society spinning out of control, reeling from the horrors of the recent past towards those of the near future.

It would have made a fine soundtrack to the ballroom scene of The Shining.

Even seemingly minor works like La mère l’oye or Pavane pour une infante défunte too are captivating.

BTW, this early recording of his Introduction and Allegro dates from 1923 or 1924. It seems Ravel really did conduct the piece, not just supervise it. The Introduction is very slow, the Allegro very fast.


[1] Cf. http://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/ravel-boléro-which-recording-should-you-buy