Louis Lortie Plays Ravel

pianist Louis Lortie
French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie

 

Last week we listened to Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, a piece which originated as a solo piano suite and culminated as a breathtakingly colorful orchestral work. Many of Ravel’s works followed this evolution. His glistening, Impressionistic orchestration even extended to Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibitiona work also originally for solo piano.

Let’s return to Ravel the pianist with a few excerpts from French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie’s 2003 recording (on the Chandos label), Ravel’s Complete Works for Solo Piano. We’ll start with Lortie’s beautifully intimate performance of the Menuet from Le Tombeau de Couperin:

Une barque sur l’océan

Une barque sur l’océan, the third movement of Ravel’s piano suite, Miroirs, evokes the feeling of a boat tossing in waves, at the mercy of powerful ocean currents. Each movement of Miroirs, written between 1904 and 1905, was dedicated to a member of the Les Apaches, a group of French avant-garde writers, musicians and artists which included Ravel. This movement was dedicated to the painter Paul Sordes.

Une barque sur l’océan goes beyond musical image painting or literal representations of the ocean. Hazy and dreamlike, this is music that makes us forget about goals. Instead, we get lost in the vast, timeless ocean of the present. Each harmonic shift is enjoyable for what it is, rather than where it’s going. You might get a particularly powerful sense of this at the end of the movement:

Jeux d’eau

Jeux d’eau evokes feelings of the play of water, this time in smaller splashes. Written in 1901, this piece was dedicated to Ravel’s teacher, Gabriel Fauré. The manuscript included a quote from Henri de Régnier’s Cité des eaux: “Dieu fluvial riant de l’eau qui le chatouille…” (“River god laughing as the water tickles him…”).

A couple of listening points: At 3:44 we return to the opening idea, but suddenly, because of the note in the bass, it has a completely different feeling (darker and more ominous). From 5:01 listen to the way the music revels in splashes of color:

Pavane pour une infante defunte

Pavane pour une infante defunte was written in 1899 when Ravel was a student at the Conservatoire de Paris. It’s easy to hear the influence of Fauré in this serene melody, but we also hear Ravel pushing the boundaries. Listen to the jazzy parallel harmony around 0:54. I love the way minor turns to major for the final statement of the theme at 5:05:

The Color and Magic of Stravinsky’s Petrushka

Vaslav Nijinsky dancing the title role in Petrushka.
Vaslav Nijinsky danced the title role in Petrushka at the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1911.

 

Tricksters relish the disruption of the status quo, turning the Ordinary World into chaos with their quick turns of phrase and physical antics.  Although they may not change during the course of their Journeys, their world and its inhabitants are transformed by their antics.  The Trickster uses laughter [and ridicule] to make characters see the absurdity of the situation, and perhaps force a change.

-Joseph Campbell

Petrushka, a centuries-old archetypal character in Russian folk puppetry, is the quintessential trickster. He’s the Russian equivalent of the English puppet, “Punch”-a subversive jester who straddles the comic line between benevolent and aggressive. Petrushka is the clown that makes you slightly uncomfortable.

As Igor Stravinsky’s 1911 ballet began to take shape, he wrote in a letter,

…my Petrushka is turning out each day completely new and there are new disagreeable traits in his character, but he delights me because he is absolutely devoid of hypocrisy.

Throughout the ballet, Stravinsky identifies Petrushka with a distinctive and slightly menacing chord, heard first in the clarinets at this moment. The “Petrushka chord” combines two triads (C major and F-sharp major). Played together, a tritone apart, they clash with striking dissonance. The same chord can be heard in Maurice Ravel’s Jeux d’eauwritten ten years earlier in 1901.

Petrushka opens with the bustle of St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Square during the Shrovetide Fair carnival (Mardi Gras). We hear the crowd’s exuberant shouts in Stravinsky’s music, as well as the brief, cranky sounds of an organ grinder. Attention shifts to a puppet theater and a Magician, introduced by mystical and exotic sounds in the bassoon and contrabassoon (beginning around the 5:18 mark in the clip below). Three puppets (Petrushka, the Moor, and the Ballerina) come to life as the Magician touches them with a flute (6:52). Petrushka is in love with the Ballerina. Although she flirts and teases him (11:00-11:42), she only cares for the Moor. In the ballet’s Third Tableau, the imprisoned Petrushka breaks free and jealously attacks the Moor, interrupting his seduction of the Ballerina. The Moor beats Petrushka, who flees. Ultimately, the Moor catches Petrushka, fatally stabbing him as the horrified Shrovetide Fair crowd looks on. A policeman is called and the Magician holds up Petrushka’s “corpse,” showing that it is only a puppet. The crowd disperses and the Magician is left alone on the stage. Suddenly, Petrushka’s ghost appears above the puppet theater. In the ballet’s final bars, we hear the “Petrushka chord” leeringly in the muted trumpets (the passage begins at 33:05). As the immortal spirit of Petrushka has the last laugh, the terrified Magician flees. The line between the perceived illusion of the puppet show and “reality” vanishes.

Chronologically, Petrushka sits squarely between two other monumental ballet scores Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev’s influential Ballets Russes in Paris: The Firebird (1910) and The Rite of Spring (1913). At moments, Petrushka anticipates the primordial, raw power of the Rite. But listen closely, and you’ll also hear surprising echoes of the music of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian Romantics (For example, the orchestration and sudden turn to major here and the harmony at this moment).

At times, Petrushka grabs our attention with ostinato passages which are simultaneously static and bursting with activity. For example, listen to the colorful new sonic world we enter at the opening of the Fourth Tableau. This is the moment in the ballet when the action stops briefly as we indulge in a series of dances and, in this case, a celebration of the Russian folk song. The song “Down the Petersky Road” emerges out of the bubbling anticipation of woodwinds in the Wet Nurses’ DanceFollowing the Peasant and Bear and the Dance of the Gypsies, comes the mighty Dance of the Coachmenwhich culminates in an exhilarating canon between the brass and violins.

Here is the 1947 version of Petrushka with Amsterdam’s Concertgebow Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons. There’s a special “edge of your seat” electricity in this 2011 performance: