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CLASSICAL  August 2008

CLASSICAL August 2008

Subject:

Ravel plays Ravel

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 15 Aug 2008 15:08:30 -0700

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text/plain

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Maurice Ravel
The Composer as Pianist and Conductor

*  Valses nobles et sentimentales
*  Sonatine
*  Miroirs ("Oiseaux tristes"; "La Vallee des cloches")
*  Pavane pour une Infante defunte
*  Bolero*

Maurice Ravel, pianist
Lamoureux Orchestra/Maurice Ravel*
Pierian 0013 Total time: 51:51

Summary for the Busy Executive: Time machine.

More from Pierian's list of composer performances before the age of high
fidelity.  Thanks to this enterprising label, we can listen to Debussy
playing his piano music and accompanying Mary Garden in his songs, to
me one of the most important releases in the history of recorded music.
Like most of the CDs in this series, the Ravel depends on the Kenneth
Caswell collection.  Caswell, a music-loving engineer, is hipped on the
subject of reproducing pianos (popularly and inaccurately known as "player
pianos").  He owns several types, as well as the rolls to go with them,
and has gone so far as to take them apart and assemble them again, just
to understand the workings.

Remember that acoustic and electrical recording (at least in the early
days) left much to be desired as an accurate representation of musical
performance.  Indeed, one can still argue that the live and recorded
versions of the same performance differ significantly, and not merely
subjectively.  Many great composer-performers refused to go before
microphones or giant horns because they felt that the resulting sound
did them no justice.  But some of them - like Mahler, Debussy, Scriabin,
Granados, and Ravel - did make piano rolls.

Many different versions of piano-roll technology competed with one
another, from the relatively inflexible and crude system most of us
associate today with player pianos to the Rolls-Royce devices of the
Welte-Mignon company, which reproduced the minutiae of performer dynamics,
pedaling, and touch.  The Welte-Mignon system represents to me a triumph
of the mechanical age.  A middle-ground system, made by Duo-Art, also
could give back dynamics, but not from the player at the time of playing.
Usually, a technician noted the dynamics as the performer played, then
added the dynamics to the roll later.

This CD gives us three sonic images of Ravel: through his Welte Mignon
rolls, through his Duo-Art rolls, and through an electrical recording
from 1930.  From the standpoint of sound alone, the electrical recording
distorts the performance the most, despite the excellent efforts of
engineer Karl Miller to clean things up.  The piano rolls, particularly
the Welte-Mignons, sound as if you're looking over the composer's shoulder
as he plays.

Despite his deep understanding of the piano and of the orchestra,
Ravel never considered himself either a pianist or a conductor.  In
the wings for a performance as soloist in his G-major concerto, he
supposedly remarked to the conductor, "What a pity. Now it will all be
ruined." Certainly his piano rolls startle less and reveal less than
Debussy's.  Debussy's piano playing suggests an entire philosophy of
music.  You get from Ravel something more straightforward.  He plays
without schmaltz, even in something like Miroirs's "Vallee des cloches."
This shows up to best advantage in his classic reading of the first two
movements from the Sonatine, which despite its title reveals Ravel at
his most elegant and most profound.  One curious feature of his pianism
is his tendency to "riffle" chords slightly, rather than hit the chord
so that all notes sound simultaneously.  It seems an easy way to provide
both more depth of sound as well as greater singing in the line.  This
shows up in the Welte-Mignon rolls (Valses nobles et sentimentales and
Sonatine, both recorded in 1913).

The Duo-Art rolls, from the Twenties, leave the impression of cleaner
playing, although whether this represents a shift in Ravel or a larger
granularity in the recording process, I have no idea.  The Pavane pour
une Infante defunte is competent, but, as with Miroirs's "Oiseaux tristes,"
even a middling professional pianist will mine more color options from
the music than Ravel.  On the other hand, "La Vallee des cloches" draws
a cohesive reading from the composer, no small feat in a six-minute span
based mainly on the church-bell cliche of the descending fourth
("Ding-Dong!").

Ravel's conducting of his Bolero not only bears out his own estimate
of his podium abilities, but reminds us that this "lollipop" was once
difficult modern music.  Ravel has trouble keeping the ensemble together.
Soloists run ahead of the steady drummer (TUM, dih-dih-dih TUM,
dih-dih-dih-dih-dih-dih-dih-dih-dih TUM).  Sections veer out of the
rhythmic groove from other sections in the tuttis.  The sound doesn't
help.  Ravel conceived the piece as a giant crescendo and the recording
flattens this out.  After a certain early point, more instruments come
in, but the sound doesn't increase.  It so happens I recently listened
to a modern account of Bolero from a middling orchestra and conductor,
and even here the crescendo was more prominent and the ensemble tighter.

But you wouldn't buy this CD for Bolero anyway.  Most would probably
go for the latest sonic spectacular, and why not?  The score was written
to sound marvelous.  However, it's always interesting to hear a composer's
thoughts on his own work.  Ravel concerns himself mainly with the grande
ligne, generally free of the schmutz and swooning that pianists sometimes
bring to his piano music.  The piano music, which can sound lush, here
appears cool and chaste.  The Sonatine points the way to the Valses
nobles et sentimentales, Ma mere l' oye, and the second movement of the
G-major concerto.  It's the worship of beauty from an elegant mind.
Another winner from Pierian.

Steve Schwartz

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