Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) may be best known and loved for his nuanced understanding of orchestration, as demonstrated in the slow and thrilling buildup to the climax of Bolero. But he was just as gifted at writing for soloists and chamber groups, as several new recordings and one classic reissue demonstrate.
Over the past couple of years, Azerbaijani pianist Oleg Marshev has been adding Ravel to his approximately 50 recordings on the Danacord label. His five-volume set of Prokofiev solo works, rightfully lauded by critics, might imply that his playing is more focused on intricate technique and bald power than on the ethereal, impressionistic style needed for fin-de-siècle French pieces. But his Ravel: Complete Solo Piano Music, with two volumes out so far and another expected soon, belies that assumption.
The first volume is the early works, including some that are barely known and one never before recorded. The premiere is a fugue from Ravel’s conservatory days. A well-known fact of Ravel’s biography is how, as a student, he kept trying to win the Prix de Rome, the prominent composition award. After his fifth consecutive loss, in 1905, corruption was uncovered in the prize’s administration. Ravel had, in fact, been robbed! Good thing that didn’t stop him from composing.
One of his entries was a four-voice fugue in F major, based on a theme by Napoléon H. Reber. It was thought to have been lost, but Marshev got his hands on it and wrote a new arrangement, included in Volume 1. It’s good to be reminded of Ravel’s sophisticated understanding of 18th-century counterpoint.
That fated year of 1905 is represented by Ravel’s set of piano miniatures, Miroirs, M. 43 (the “M.” number refers to the index amassed by musicologist Marcel Marnat). But the material in the volumes is not chronological. Volume 2 jumps back to 1902 for a Fugue in B-flat and goes as far as 1909 for the Minuet on the Name of Haydn, M. 58.
While the scholastic exercises are fascinating, it’s the Miroirs that really illustrate Marshev’s mastery of the Ravel style (and his skill at “half-pedaling” for that important almost-sustained sound). His performance of Miroirs No. 1, “Noctuelles,” is like fine lace that occasionally transforms into shards of glass.
If you stream music, you now have access to another great recording of Miroirs, not to mentioned everything else Ravel wrote for keyboard. In 2011, Warner/Parlophone remastered Walter Gieseking’s 1956 recording of Ravel’s complete piano works. In 2022, they offered it on hi-res streaming services for the first time.
It’s instructive to compare Gieseking’s Miroirs to Marshev’s. While the former has a slightly heavier touch, he uses more sustain pedal and less distinct rhythmic articulation, creating an unending musical fabric. Maybe Marshev’s immersion in Prokofiev did affect his Ravel after all. Then again, Marshev’s more orderly presentation could simply be considered a more modern interpretation of Ravel, who in the past 25 years has come to be understood as a great proponent of structure and order.
But there’s a strong argument that the Franco-German Gieseking knew more about Ravel than anyone living today. After all, he was the composer’s younger contemporary (1895 – 1956). As the pianist did in his recordings of Debussy, he had an ability to hear the larger arcs and background colors of Ravel’s works.
There are also some examples of Ravel’s solo piano music included in Ravel: Complete Instrumental Chamber Works. That’s appropriate, since “chamber music” simply refers to pieces that can be performed in a small room (chamber); soloists count. The 3-disc recording from NoMad Music features the Ensemble Sésame in a variety of configurations.
Pianist Julien La Pape gives a fine rendering of Ravel’s Ma mère l'Oye, M. 60 (Mother Goose). This movement, “Garden of the Fairies,” has a methodical Mussorgsky-like rhythmic progression. This is not an idle comparison: Ravel was intimately familiar with the Russian’s output. His is the second-most played orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, after that of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Ravel wrote chamber music for many combinations of instruments. His Introduction et Allegro, M. 46 includes clarinet, flute, and harp plus string quartet. In many cases, equating Ravel with Debussy is a facile shorthand, but a piece like this shows how Ravel often shared the ethereal, dreamlike aspects of Impressionism.
The chamber-music output of Ravel includes sonatas for violin and piano as well as violin and cello, and an examples of his love for Spanish music in the Rhapsodie Espagnole for two pianos. The Trio in A minor, M. 67, for piano, violin, and cello, has a Brahmsian richness. The Sésame members give a nuanced performance, celebrating the many contrasting textures Ravel provides. They are unabashed, almost feral, in the swirling fourth movement, yet always in perfect control. At the merest breath they switch from granite to gossamer.
Thanks in part to filmmaker Wes Anderson, who included it on the soundtrack for his movie The Royal Tenenbaums, Ravel’s mighty String Quartet in F Major, M. 35, is his best-known chamber work. It is one of the quartets on the latest Warner Classics release by Quatuor Via Nova, along with one each by Claude Debussy and Albert Roussel.
Via Nova takes a graceful, breathy approach to the Ravel’s first movement. The tense and intriguing pizzicato second movement (the one used by Anderson) has the right amount of frenetic energy.
Debussy’s G minor quartet has been recorded countless times, but it’s worth mentioning the less-familiar Quartet in D Major, Op. 45, by Roussel (1869-1937). Quite famous in his own day, Roussel was an Impressionist in his early career; by the time he wrote Op. 45, he had developed an interest in neoclassicism and modernism. This work, written at the end of his life, is more a predecessor to Shostakovich than it is a reflection of Ravel or Debussy.
Roussel’s work gives important context for the breadth of French music in the last decade of Ravel’s life. Ravel was fortunate to compose during one of the richest eras in all of classical music history, and one that would not have been the same without his contributions.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.