Friday, January 25, 2013

Modéré - très franc


Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Ravel: Complete Music for Solo Piano (Abbey Simon). I've always revered the deceptively gentle revolution represented by Debussy, who arguably did more to expand the possibilities of Western harmony than any single composer of his time. But it's his tiny, quicksilver contemporary Ravel whose music I love. The clarity and concision of his writing gives his work real snap, sinew, and sweep, and it all feels purposeful, forward-moving; where Debussy's music can float, teasingly, in a kind of multichord/no-chord ether where it seems it wouldn't matter if he added or subtracted a note here or there, I always feel like every note in Ravel's chords, no matter how clustery and diffuse their effect, is there for a reason, is earning its keep, is a jewel meticulously cut and set there with care.

As with jewels, of course, there can be a cool, unyielding hardness to this music, and particularly so in his crystalline, percussive writing for piano; I don't recommend this music as a soundtrack to sub-freezing weather, as it was for me on this particular spin. And I'll confess that the appeal of the suites "Gaspard de la Nuit" and "Miroirs" continues to elude me; they're like textural etudes, harmonic laboratories, all musical grammar with scant musical content.

But most of this music is gospel to me, and the best of the lot is saved for nearly last: the swelling, surging "Sonatine" and the exquisitely trickling "Jeux d'eau," as perfect a case of programmatic music as has ever been made (yes, it really does sound like a play of water). Even the pieces I'm less keen on have the Ravel signature, the thing that endears me to him as my second favorite composer, after Weill: his wrenching harmonic syntax, to my ears as distinctive as the phrasing of a vocalist, in which each tiny change of chord and color registers unmistakeably, transparently, piercingly, and serves to push the music forward. True, I'm more warmed by his writing for strings and orchestra, and his L'enfant et les sortilèges is my favorite opera not by Mozart. But heard through the bright, clear prism of the piano, Ravel's harmony is a bracing, reorienting antidote for the lazy, mushy musical patterns that too often deaden our ears.

Comments:
David Tobocman Insightful as hell, Rob. Nice chops. My favorite is Le Tombeau de Couperin which is an alternately beautiful and wry tribute to his French Baroque musical ancestor. Listen to Forlane for a nice laugh.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Thanks, David. Yeah, I didn't talk about Ravel's wit, which for me is inseparable from his music's beauty. With few exceptions, I'm always as refreshed and amused as I am moved by Ravel. Do you know "Danse grotesque de Dorcon" from DAPHNIS ET CHLOE? And the single most affecting piece he ever wrote, to my mind, is this, from L'ENFANT, in which the shepherds and shepherdess from a child's wallpaper march away with sad dignity because the child has torn the wallpaper in a tantrum: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbqdGtnY27Y

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