Liner notes for CD booklets and concert programs
There is little doubt that Ravel made a decisive contribution to the piano repertory of the 20th century, introducing innovations in technique and style that would have a profound influence both on his contemporaries and on successive generations of composers. His relationship with the piano is also highly individual and never predictable, requiring great technical skill and a perfect control of the sonority.
Ravel’s first known work for piano is the Sérénade Grotesque (1892-93, but published posthumously), which already shows signs of the composer’s proverbial disenchanted irony, evident in the sharp and dry sonorities of the staccato chords and dissonances that heighten the sarcasm underlying his expression.
Jeux d’eau (1901) could be said to represent a sort of manifesto of Ravel's piano style. Here the writing is already revolutionary, combining the transparency of the 18th century keyboard style of Scarlatti and Rameau with the play of timbre found in the more recent legacy of Franz Liszt. Particularly evident is his indebtedness to Liszt's Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este, from which Ravel derives certain pianistic effects well suited to the gushing “aquatic” ambience of the piece. Ravel himself wrote: «Jeux d’eau lies at the origin of the pianistic innovations that can be found in my work. This piece, inspired by the sound of water and the musical sounds made by the gushes, cascades and springs, is based on two themes, as in Sonata form, but without following the traditional tonal scheme».
The Sonatine (1903-05) is another small masterpiece that from its very first notes is unmistakably Ravelian in its meticulous formal perfection and the careful balance between rigorous linearity and complex harmonic and polyphonic writing. It consists of three short movements: Modéré, Mouvement de Menuet, Animé. The first was purposely short having been conceived for a competition held by a French journal, in which composers had to write a Sonata movement made up of less than one hundred measures. Ravel was the only participant, but was also disqualified because the Sonatine in any case exceeded (by very little) the prescribed hundred measures. The Menuet and the Finale could be almost classed as neoclassical on account of their transparency and strict rhythmic structure, with clear references to baroque music. The Finale is in fact a sort of harpsichord Toccata, though dressed in a complex polytonal and polyrhythmic web.
The title of Miroirs (1904-05) already points to Ravel’s almost symbolistic aesthetics: the images are not perceived directly by the eye (and the ear), but are reflected through other things. The five pieces that make up Miroirs are all highly atmospheric and depict five different, well-defined sonic landscapes. They are dedicated to five members of the group Apaches, a movement of intellectuals in Paris inspired by a spirit of innovation, to which also Ravel adhered. Noctuelles is dedicated to the poet Léon-Paul Fargue and alludes to the movement of nocturnal moths passing from one barn to another. The piece in effect dwells on the most mysterious and intangible aspects of the night. Oiseaux tristes, though dedicated to the pianist Ricardo Viñes, is paradoxically the least “pianistic” of the Miroirs. The sad singing of the birds is reproduced almost literally, anticipating the sort of musical ornithology that some decades later would be explored more scientifically and systematically by Oliver Messiaen. The composer tells us: «in this piece I evoke birds lost in the torpor of a sad forest, in the hottest hours of a summer’s day». Une barque sur l’ocean is again associated with water, a theme that Ravel had already approached poetically in Jeux d’eau. Here the water no long gushes, but moves in gentle waves. The arpeggios in the left hand form a kind of sonic bed for the melody of the right hand, sweet yet ambiguous due to the complex harmonies adopted by Ravel. The Alborada del gracioso is one of the most technically demanding pieces in the whole of the composer’s output. It takes us to Spain, invoking a Seguidilla, a dance accompanied by guitars and drums. In contrast with the other pieces of Miroirs, here Ravel has created a dry and pungent sonority, reaching a level of polyphonic transparency that, as he himself noted, recalls the Fugues of Bach. It is the most popular piece from Miroirs, also thanks to its relentless rhythmic energy and extreme virtuosity, which includes daring double glissandos at intervals of a third and a fourth. Finally, La vallée des cloches investigates the peculiar sonic world of bells, which echo across a valley. Ravel is particularly at ease with this type of timbral environment, and plays assuredly with the resonances of the piano.
Gaspard de la nuit (1908) is a triptych based on lines by the poet Aloysius Bertrand, taken from his collection of poetry Histoires vermoulues et poudreuses du Moyen Age. It is unanimously considered one of the most difficult and complex works in the entire piano repertory. Here Ravel further develops the techniques already exploited in Miroirs, touching on heights of timbral invention and variety of articulation that will remain a reference for all composers of piano music after him. Ondine evokes the seductive and mysterious song of the nymph Undine, who had already inspired Debussy in his Prélude of the same name. The magical and enchanted presence of the water element is captured by a thick and constant movement of repeated chords, at first pianissimo in the right hand. Above this we hear the song of the nymph, sensuous, sinuous and ambiguous, which moves between dynamic flares and enchanted suspensions. Le gibet explores the more static and sinister atmosphere of the gallows, with a hanging corpse lit up by the setting sun. The sense of fatality is produced by an obsessive and disquieting B flat, repeated more than 150 times in the course of the piece. The harmonies in fourths and fifths create an effect of objective “interior emptiness”, enhancing the dramatic tension. Scarbo is a mischievous and unpredictable imp. The creature's volatile malevolence is expressed through difficult successions of repeated notes, enlivened by sudden crescendos and fadings. Ravel once said that with Scarbo his aim was to write a piece even more difficult than Balakiriev's Islamey. And he certainly succeeded.
Right from his earliest pieces, Ravel’s piano writing is remarkable for its tendency towards the perfection “of a Swiss watchmaker”, as Igor Stravinsky once astutely commented. Although his detractors have suggested that this quest for absolute precision might stand in the way of spontaneity and sensuality, this is far from the truth. On the contrary, behind the apparent coolness there lies a reflection on the transience of earthly matters that is at once nostalgic and cynical. But whatever the case, Ravel is the French composer whose publishing rights have been the most profitable, and this says much about the success and consensus that his music has met with to this day.