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:

Le Tombeau de Couperin: Post-Apocalyptic Ravel

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), French composer. (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

 

Listening to Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, it’s easy to get a sense of altered reality. Outwardly, the original six movement suite, written for solo piano, responds to the horrors and devastation of the First World War, a conflict Ravel experienced first hand as a military ambulance driver. Ravel dedicated each movement of the work, written between 1914 and 1917, to the memory of a friend lost on the battlefield.

But, interestingly, we don’t hear the anguish of war in Ravel’s music. There isn’t a hint of the hellish fury of Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies or the dazed shell shock and bleak desolation of Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral” Symphony. Instead, Le Tombeau de Couperin escapes into an almost childlike world of color and joyful, elegant ambivalence. Like so much of Ravel’s music, there is a sense of detachment which seems to open the door to ultimate, yet indescribable truth. Some critics complained that the music was not sombre enough for its subject matter, to which Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”

Through its hazy, impressionistic prism, Le Tombeau de Couperin also evokes voices of the distant past. Its title references the French Baroque composer François Couperin (1668-1733). In the seventeenth century, Tombeau, which translates literally as “tomb,” referred to “a piece written as a memorial.” Ravel intended to pay homage not only to Couperin, but to the style and ambiance of eighteenth century French keyboard suites. The movements are based on popular Baroque dances. Listen to the rhythm and structure of this Forlane by François Couperin and compare it to Ravel’s Forlane below.

Le Tombeau de Couperin was originally written as a six movement solo keyboard suite. (Listen to Louis Lortie’s excellent performance here). Two years after its completion, Ravel orchestrated the suite, eliminating two movements (the Fugue and the Toccata). Listening to the piano score, the jazzy sophistication of Ravel’s harmonies come across with striking brilliance. But it’s in the final, orchestrated version where the music blossoms with new life through a rich array of colors. The instruments, with their distinct personas, engage in musical conversations and the tonal colors mix in magical new ways.

From the bubbly opening of the Prélude, there’s a dreamlike and illusory quality about the music. It doesn’t go where we expect, and just when we think we’ve arrived at a climax, something firm that we can hold onto, the music dissolves, like a mirage. Throughout the piece, there’s a sense of joy in the rhythm. In the Forlane, notice the buoyant, dance-like quality of the music, especially in the passage beginning at 1:10. The closing Rigaudon is full of jokes and surprises. As in the first movement, we’re pulled in new, unexpected directions.

For me, the Menuet evokes serene beauty, but also a touch of sadness. As the oboe makes its opening statement, listen to the changing colors around this solo voice. Notice the velvety bed of strings, which enters at the end of the first phrase and then passes us along to the next phrase (0:05). Listen carefully to the sudden change of color and parallel harmony beginning at 1:47. I love the way this darker, veiled new world dissolves effortlessly back into the opening theme. At the end of the Menuet, the music pauses at a climactic moment of shimmering sensuality and repose (3:52) before being cut off by the innocent, childlike “laugh” of the woodwind voices, which seem to be saying, “Come on, let’s go.” The final chord fades into a jazzy dreamscape.

One of my favorite recordings of this piece is Charles Dutoit’s 1990 CD with the Montreal Symphony:

1. Prélude:

2. Forlane:

3. Menuet:

4. Rigaudon: