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Maurice Ravel

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


Norman Lebrecht - Slipped disc

June 17

Maurice Ravel’s heritage is ‘in peril’

Norman Lebrecht - Slipped discThat’s the alarmist headline in today’s Le Figaro. It is founded on a secret recent attempt by the Ravel estate to keep Bolero from falling out of copyright and a parallel appeal by the Friends of Ravel to return the composer’s scattered manuscripts to France. We print the appeal below. But we cannot see why Maurice Ravel’s precious legacy will be in any way endangered if his manuscripts are professionally curated – as they are – in the world’s leading museums and libraries. Ravel himself never requested such a thing. The idea of turning Ravel into national treasure was his brother’s. The appeal looks like a case of Frenchmen crying wolf. International appeal for the return of all missing documents and property of Maurice Ravel to the care of the public archives in France. In his will of 18 July 1958, Edouard Ravel (1878-1960), younger brother and sole heir of the composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), bequeathed Le Belvédère, the composer’s home at Montfortl’Amaury, to the Réunion des Musées Nationaux in order to create there a Ravel museum in memory of his brother. On 27 October 1959 Edouard Ravel gave to the Ville de Levallois some of the composer’s belongings which came from his second home in this town. Edouard Ravel had also expressed in writing the wish that property of any kind which may have belonged to the composer should be preserved, especially his manuscripts and autograph sketches. The association of Les Amis de Maurice Ravel was established with the aim of guarding the composer’s memory. It is launching an appeal for the return of all of the missing documents and property of Maurice Ravel to the care of the public archives in France, where they may be freely consulted. Anyone who supports the terms of this international petition may sign it by writing to the offices of the association, by post or by e-mail. The list of signatories will be published on the association’s website: http://www.boleravel.fr

Classical iconoclast

June 21

Offenbach Le roi Carotte - perfect for post-truth politics

At the International Opera Awards this spring, Jacques Offenbach Le roi Carotte. and deservedly so. What a discovery!  Le roi Carotte is a wildly anarchic satire, whose message is only too relevant now, in our era of "post-truth" politics where demagogues and their followers think winning is everything. The production was a sensation at its premiere at the Opéra National de Lyon on 12 December 2015. It was broadcast on France Musique, French and German TV, the BBC, and elsewhere but in the UK it seems have have raised nary a ripple of interest.  Judging by the incomprehension with which Chabrier's L’Étoile was received in London this February (read more here) maybe one could conclude that London audiences don't get opéra bouffe, or they'd have realized that King Ouf's very name springs from the word "bouffe". In other words, puffed up, wicked, lively, as delicious as whipped creme.   Offenbach's original, first heard in 1872, was an over the top extravaganza of 22 scenes, singing, dancing, music and comedy sketches, lasting more than six hours, which definitely wouldn't go down well with modern audiences.  Bouffe and operetta aren't quite the same thing. This new edition was prepared by Laurent Pelly, a man of the theatre who knows the genre extremely well, and indeed specializes in French theatre and opera. Remember his Ravel  L'enfant et les sortilèges at Glyndebourne?  Read an interview with Pelly here.  Pelly has directed a lot of Offenbach : La belle Hélène  Les conte's d'Hoffmann (twice) , La Périchole and La Duchesse de Gérolstein.   Le roi Carotte is magnificent on its own terms, but a bit of background doesn't hurt. The Overture, for example, though it's pure Offenbach, has the panache of the military choruses in Gounod's Faust. This may be no accident, since going to war meant less to Goethe than it did to Gounod whose audiences gloried in Napoleon III and victories in the Crimea. When Le roi Carotte premiered, the irony would not have been lost on Offenbach's audiences, who only the previous year had witnessed the Prussian invasion and the Paris Commune.  In Le roi Carotte, the drunken student chorus is even more prominent, complete with staccato riffs to which beer mugs can be rhythmically beaten. Hedonism rules! But "Don't knock it" sing the chorus : it can all evaporate in an instant.   Le roi Fridolin XXIV is broke and must marry Princess Cunégonde for her money.  There's a wonderful vignette, in which a crafty student, Robin-Lauron, plots to rip off Fridolin and his remaining assets (weapons).  Indeed, all the set pieces are full of character, sharply defined.  Robin-Lauron discovers Rosée-du-soir, princess of Moravia, who has been imprisoned for years by the witch Coloquinte  The pair sing a duet "Roule, petit boule" , so even if we don't have a clue why they're there, the scene is delightful.  The witch is tricked by greed into conjuring up Le roi Carotte.....  Back in the palace, Cunégonde meets the stuffy courtiers. But who should march in but Le roi Carotte and his vegetable minions.  The court is horrified: the orchestra playing strange sounds that could come from Berlioz.  But Coloquinte the witch "conducts" from above, and the court fall over in mindless adulation.  "A bas Fridolin!"  the chorus cries. The Carrot is King.  Fridolin calls on his forebears. Ghostly knights in armour march in, singing a parody of Gounod's Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux.  "How dare you invoke your ancestors", they scold, "roi sans vertu qui les bravais jadis".  Fridolin consults a magician, Kiribibi, who sings an aria about politics, Talleyrand and a fickle public.  Fridolin and his friends are magicked of to Pompeii, "la ville de la morte" . More spooky music, more references to Faust.  Like the hedonistic students, the citizens of Pompeii sing of bread and wine. Fridolin and his companions con the Pompeiians  by invoking railway trains!  I kid you not, this is in the score and libretto  Growling ostinato, high flutes suggesting wind, whistles and speed. "La locomotive, coursier infernale, encore captive, s'ébrante le signale". The railway symbolized progress : Berlioz and Heine wrote about them, too.  The music is so vivid that the staging doesn't need to show trains. Instead a depiction of Vesuvius is wheeled in, spouting smoke.  Like a locomotive..... Meanwhile back in the palace le roi Carotte is besieged by sycophants and salesmen - from Persia no less - but being down to earth, he prefers soup to silks.  Fridolin and Cunégonde meet. "Moi! Toi?  haha haha " they duet, the orchestra laughing along.  Coloquinte appears and sends Fridolin, Robin-Lauron and Rosée-du-soir underground in puffs of smoke, the journey described by the orchestra, playing in darkness. Here, insects rule.  "Gloria nobis", they sing as they educate Fridolin and friends about their underworld. The bugs swarm upwards.  Coloquinte can't cope.  Le roi Carotte and his radish knights get sick.  "Ça est la strategé", use bugs to weaken veg! Crops fail, prices rise and the populace in the market place revolt.  At last they call the king a carrot. Kiribibi stands astride a barricade of vegetable crates and sings of Liberty.  The people recognize the sounds of an approaching army.   Fridolin is restored. Le roi carotte doesn't go to the guillotine. He's shredded in a vegetable press. An exceptional opera, an exceptional production and a very good cast, details here.  Chances are it will never come to the UK, but let's hope it will be appreciated on DVD.




Tribuna musical

June 15

From America and Germany two choirs and an orchestra

In our ample and variegated musical life sometimes we get interesting visitors from places little known here and we get agreeable surprises. Such was the case recently, as I had the acquaintance of the Capella Vocalis Reutlingen, The Memphis Second Presbyterian Church Choir and the St. Olaf Orchestra. The Bach Academy organized the presentation of the Reutlingen group as a non-subscription concert on Monday (not Saturday, their usual day) at the Central Methodist Church, the Academy´s venue for decades, with warm acoustics. Reutlingen is a charming city at the Black Forest, south of Stuttgart and Tübingen. The Capella Vocalis was founded in 1992 by Eckhard Weyand and since 2012 it is directed by Christian Bonath. It is made up of children sopranos and contraltos and young tenors and basses. At home the choir is really big, 120-strong, but here they came as a chamber choir. Germany has a great choral tradition, and the Reutlingen is a good example of it. They came in singing a lovely Italian Lauda (Medieval), "Alta Trinita beata", and after the concert they came out doing it again. The severe though beautiful programme was all sacred, except for the surprise of two Händel pieces sung by Jan Jerlitschka. And all German, apart from Charpentier´s "Stabat Mater for nuns", a spare Motet sung by only six voices and accompanied by organ (Bonath). It was interesting to hear an imaginative motet by a Bach that died before Johann Sebastian was born: Johann Christoph (1604-73). Both in this and in the famous chorale from Cantata Nº 147 by J.S., "Jesu joy of men´s desiring", Mario Videla ("alma pater" of the Academy), collaborated at the organ. Mendelssohn´s command of counterpoint and fluid inspiration was evident in three scores: "Psalm 43" for double choir, a motet for four-voiced men´s chorus in Latin, and the "Three spiritual songs" concluding the concert. Two barely known XIXth century composers were represented by motets: Moritz Hauptmann and Bernhard Klein; well-wrought music from Romantics that assimilated the Baroque and Classicist traditions. A nd J.S.Bach´s short and difficult motet "Lobet den Herrn" ("Praise the Lord), also with Videla. All this music was heard in accomplished interpretations that showed both the skill of the director and the fine discipline and pleasant voices of the choir. I was stunned by the participation of Jerlitschka, for he was born in 1998 and I have never heard before a boy soprano of that age; fact is he keeps the crystalline timbre of a child and he sang with fine line the beautiful Händel aria "Where´er you walk" from the oratorio "Semele" and the melodic sacred song "Süsse Stille, sanfte Quelle" ("Sweet silence, soft spring"), accompanied by Bonath. Unfortunately San Benito, a Neo-Romanic church, looks splendid but has terribly reverberant acoustics. We heard there a Johann Sebastian Bach programme called The Life of Christ with the Chancel Choir of the Second Presbyterian Church from Memphis, Tennessee, led by Gabriel Statom. As I read the listing of scores I thought it was enormously long; and three things happened: of many pieces of ABA structure we only heard A; others were cancelled (no announcement); and two works were eliminated wholly: Cantata Nº 4, "Christ lag in Todesbanden" ("Christ lay in Death´s bonds") and the "Ascension Oratorio" (called so in the Bach catalogue, but really Cantata Nº 11); this was announced. The accompaniment wasn´t mentioned in the hand programme; but the parson told the audience that they were members of the National Symphony (about 15 players). This chamber choir is probably as big as that of Bach´s St. Thomas Church: 23 voices; but with two differences: the sopranos and contraltos were boys; and there was a more balanced distribution than in this instance (8 sopranos, 8 contraltos, 3 tenors and 4 basses). A curiosity: one of the tenors was Maico Hsiao, a Taiwanese living in BA. The vocal soloists came from the choir, plus an Argentine, tenor Osvaldo Peroni as the Evangelist. We heard fragments of the Christmas Oratorio, the St.John Passion, the Easter Oratorio and Cantata Nº 140, wonderful and well-contrasted Bachian music. The brilliance of the chosen numbers of the oratorios was based on the first-rate playing of the trumpeters. As far as the acoustics permitted, Statom obtained good results from his assembled forces, with the sonorous voices of tenor Tucker Williams and bass Neil Sherouse in particular. The Mozarteum Midday Concerts moved for just one date to the Coliseo instead of the Gran Rex, and greatly gained due to much better acoustics (it would be nice if future cycles could be done there). Once again the USA university orchestras amazed by their quality: the St.Olaf Orchestra of the homonymous college depends on the University of the Lutheran Evangelical Church in Minnesota and is more than centenarian (founded in 1908). Splendidly conducted by Steven Amundson for the last thirty years, it is big (92 players) and all sectors proved their worth in an attractive programme. After a homage to Ginastera (the powerful second movement from his Pampeana Nº3) we heard valuable and rarely heard USA music: three parts of the Suite from the opera "The Tender Land", a prime example of his "prairie style"; and Barber´s closely argued and dramatic "Second Essay". Then, Ravel´s extra-difficult "Tzigane" was played well by Francesca Anderegg. The rousing Overture from Bernstein´s "West Side Story" was the fitting end. For Buenos Aires Herald

Classical iconoclast

June 14

Time travel Aldeburgh : François-Xavier Roth Rameau Ravel

François-Xavier Roth brought Aldeburgh "through the centuries" when  Les Siècles played Rameau and Ravel on Saturday, the first in a series by this most fascinating of ensembles. Roth and Les Siècles are innovative, dispensing with the whole idea of boxing music into stereotypes of period and genre.  For them, music is a life force so vital that it transcends boundaries.  Period performance isn't just about instruments or even style. It's a whole new way of thinking, which respects the music itself, as opposed to received tradition.  In his own time, Jean-Philippe Rameau was avant garde, so shockingly different that he was lucky to have patrons in high places.  Rameau changed music.  Thus Roth and Les Siècles paired Rameau and Ravel, innovators across the centuries, both working on themes from classical antiquity.  Time travel on every level ! Significantly, both Rameau and Ravel were writing for dance.  Dancing is a physical activity, which requires co-operation. Dancers co-ordinate with music, and with each other. Rameau's music takes its very structure from the discipline of dance, with its intricate formal patterns and abstract expressiveness. In 1722,  Rameau wrote the Traité de l'harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels, building firm theoretical foundations for musical creativity.  The baroque aesthetic "contained the world" to borrow a phrase from Mahler, encompassing worlds beyond time and place. Rameau's Daphnis et Eglé (1753) illustrates the composer's basic ideas.  It was created for Louis XV at Fontainebleau, as entertainment after days spent in the forests hunting animals for sport.  This context matters.  The dancers, singers and musicians act out a fantasy which has little bearing on real life. Yet it's so beautiful that it takes on a logic of its own.  Think about baroque gardens, where the abundance of nature is channeled into formal parterres, though woodlands flourish beyond, and birds fly freely.This tension between nature and artifice livens the spirit: gods mix with mortals, improbable plots seem perfectly plausible.  We enjoy the music as abstract art.  The whole  Daphnis et Eglé unfolds over 16 separate tableaux each of which illustrates a type of dance, the whole piece thus forming an intricate unity of patterns and sub-patterns.   I've seen the piece choreographed which reveals the way the music reflects physical form: a wonderful experience !   At Aldeburgh, Roth and  Les Siècles don't have the resources of Les Arts Florissants to hand, and also dispensed with the sections for voice, but this hardly mattered.   By focusing on the purely musical aspects of the piece, they brought out its innate energy, its liveliness deriving from its origins in dance. This performance was even more muscular than when Christie and Les Arts Flo did it in 2014,  bringing out the forceful, physical quality in the music to great effect.   Baroque dancing, particularly before Louis XIV, was more athletics than ballet as we know it now.  Like fencing, it was physical fitness for aristocrats, training the mind as well as the body.  In this superb performance,  Roth and Les Siècles proved, if any further  proof were needed, that period performance is not for wimps ! This performance of Daphnis et Chloé was even more revealing.  So often the piece is heard as dreamy colorwash, for it is so beautiful,  but its foundations are much firmer. Ravel was writing for the Ballets Russe, for larger and more opulent orchestras than Rameau.   Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé is a descendant of Debussy La Mer, an impressionistic fantasy, yet it is very much a work created for dance.  Ravel gave more room to characterize the narrative, but the spirit of the work is deliberately alien. Thus Ravel's wind instruments and strings evoke otherworldly atmospheres. The solo parts are exquisite, suggesting pan pipes and delphic voices.  . There's even a suggestion of a wind machine (though it's done by more conventional means).  The offstage horns, trumpets and voices evoke mystery, suggesting states beyond mortal comprehension (that's why the singing is wordless).  Yet the aesthetic of Ravel's period embraced modernity, the stylization of art nouveau, where plants, flowers and people were depicted in twirling, twining contrast, influenced heavily by art from beyond central and western Europe. As in the baroque, nature cannot really be tamed even in an era when people lived in cities lit by electricity and rode in tramcars.  Fokine's angular choreography horrified audiences used to mid-19th century ballet, where ballerinas fluttered in tulle.  Bakst's designs for this ballet were decidedly "modern" in comparison, evoking the formality of ancient Greek art.  This superb performance seemed informed by insight into the context of the piece.  Roth and Les Siècles  brought out the innate energy in the piece, reminding us of the angular, "primitive" style of the Ballets Russe, inspired by prehistory and ancient myth.  A vivid performance, bristling with verve and physicality.  Listen again here on BBC Radio 3.



Classical iconoclast

June 7

Male Elgar Sea Pictures : Roderick Williams Three Choirs Festival

At the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford last year,  Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but with typical flair, Roderick Williams and Susie Allan  presented them with a difference.  Listen here on BBC Radio 3 Williams started with RVW Four Last Songs. Divest oneself of notions of  Richard Strauss.  RVW's songs aren't nearly such masterpieces,  but a loose compilation of ideas left unfinished upon the composer's death. Procris is based on a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams, Menelaus on the Odyssey. The last two last poems are more personal .The contemplative mood of Tired suggests a man assessing his past without rancour, and Hands, eyes and heart suggests inward, private emotions. Stylistically, they connect more to very early RVW, even pre-Ravel RVW, than to his finest works, but are still worth hearing, especially for English song specialists. I first heard them from the Ludlow English Song Weekend in May 2015. Elgar is an essential feature of the Three Choirs Festival, which this year takes place in Gloucester.  But large-scale Elgar, rarely Elgar piano song.  Again, Roderick Williams to the rescue ! Elgar's  Sea Pictures  is usually heard with full orchestra, though Elgar himself transcribed the piano song version, and played it privately.  Elgar's art songs  are somewhat eclipsed by the fame of RVW, Quilter, Butterworth et al,  for in many ways they hark back to an earlier era. Sea Pictures, however, was conceived with grand orchestral flourish, so this version is rather more than Elgar's other songs for voice and piano. Sea Pictures is also mezzo and contralto territory, so hearing it with a baritone makes it even more unusual.  Most of us are imprinted with memories of Janet Baker singing  "Yet, I the mother mild, hush thee, O my child" but the mother figure in the poem fades as the vision of Elfin Land emerges. The lower tessitura suits the last strophes, where  "Sea sounds, like violins"  lead the descent into slumber.  The maritime references in Sabbath Morning at Sea become more prominent: most sailors in Elgar's time were male, after all. The piano part in this song is distinctively Elgarian.  When RW sings "He shall assist me to look higher", you can almost feel the ship's sails billow in the wind.  A male voice works best with The Swimmer and its muscular, athletic swagger: very macho.  A pity that the BBC miked the piano too closely. When I heard Williams sing Sea Pictures in recital at the Oxford Lieder Festival with  Andrew West  five years ago, the balance was much more natural. Coming up soon, from the same concert last year, two settings of texts by lesser-known poets of the First World War.  Rhian Samuel's A Swift Radiant Morning, (2015)  a setting of five poems by Charles Hamilton Sorley, a Marlborough man who died, aged only 20, at the Battle of Loos in October 1915 and Tim Torry's The Voice of Grief (2003), settings of Charlotte Mew (1869-1928)

Maurice Ravel
(1875 – 1937)

Maurice Ravel (March 7, 1875 – December 28, 1937) was a French composer of Impressionist music known especially for his melodies, orchestral and instrumental textures and effects. Much of his piano music, chamber music, vocal music and orchestral music has entered the standard concert repertoire. Ravel's piano compositions, such as Jeux d'eau, Miroirs, Le tombeau de Couperin and Gaspard de la nuit, demand considerable virtuosity from the performer, and his orchestral music, including Daphnis et Chloé and his arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, uses a variety of sound and instrumentation. Ravel is perhaps known best for his orchestral work Boléro (1928), which he considered trivial and once described as "a piece for orchestra without music."



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