Friday, July 23, 2010

Ravel - Bolero, Rapsodie Espagnole etc - Dutoit, Montreal SO

Referring to Bolero, Ravel once remarked to his fellow composer Arthur Honegger that he had produced only one masterpiece, adding ruefully that it contained no music! He was right in a sense because this work owes its success precisely to its defiance of all the carefully elaborated traditions of Western classical music. What there is instead is one unforgettable tune, put through a kaleidoscopic sequence of colour-changes on a large orchestra -note the saxophones. Monotonous repetition of the tune and the steady crescendo throughout, combine to hypnotise the listener until all the electrifying tension explodes at the climax, with one shuddering change of key, and then a discord in the brass to finish. Inescapably, the effect is one of hysteria; the same hysteria that lurks over the end of La Valse, Unlike that work, the Bolero was danced at its first performance on 22 November 1928, and by that highly idiosyncratic figure, Ida Rubinstein. The choreography was the work of Nijinsky's sister, Bronislava Nijinska. The Bolero, though there is an obvious Spanish fiesta-like atmosphere present, is not actually a true bolero. Likewise, the Rapsodie espagnole is Spain seen through Debussy's Iberia, for Ravel, born near St.-Jean-de-Luz, was always fiercely proud of his Basque ancestry. The first performance of the Rapsodie espagnole was conducted by Edouard Colonne in Paris in March, 1908, although the origins of its third movement go back to the two-piano Piece en forme de habanera, written in 1895. The orchestral brilliance of the final exhilarating Feria is matched in another Spanish work, the Alborada del Gracioso, once again originally written for piano, as the fourth piece in the cycle Miroirs (1904-5). In its orchestral guise (1918), the fiendish repeated notes of the piano version are translated -although one is never aware of the process of translation -into a vivid Mediterranean panorama, wherein Ravel exploits to the full an enormous percussion section; watch out also for a perverse single bar of solo cello, An alborada is a morning serenade specially characteristic of Galicia and a gracioso is a jester in a Spanish nobleman's house. Ravel, along with composers as diverse as Debussy and Emmanuel Chabrier, clearly had a Spanish fixation, which showed itself in other works too, such as the opera L'Heure espagnole. But for one ofhis most powerful and disturbing works, La Valse, he turned not to Spain, but to ImperialVienna. The initial idea was Diaghllev's, in 1919; something of an olive branch, for Ravel had broken off diplomatic relations with the Ballets Russes over Daphnis et Chloe. Diaghilev, when commissioning Ravel, can hardly have expected anything ordinary, but even so he rejected La Valse with the astute observation that it was "not so much a ballet, as the portrait of a ballet". The wonder is that it has been danced so successfully since! The score still carries a brief scenario by the composer which places the action firmly in the Imperial Court, around 1855. But the music itself, though its Viennese roots are still apparent, gradually begins to breathe a different atmosphere. Vienna is all there, in the accelerandos and ritardandos, the exaggerated dynamics, the typical Straussian lead-ins and the glissandos (Ravel's use of this technique alone would fill a volume). But before our eyes (or ears), the waltz seems to be dissected; no wonder that La Valse ends not in a glorious apotheosis, but again in hysteria, in nightmare, frenzy, and even death.--Piers Burton-Page

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