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Ravel & Brahms

Maurice Ravel (b. 1875 - d. 1937)

Ma mère l'Oye (1911)

 

Barely five feet tall, and a lifelong bachelor, Maurice Ravel indulged a penchant for small things. Financial success—and he enjoyed more of it than any other French composer by far—gave him the wherewithal to procure in 1920 a suitably small, whimsical house—he called it Le Belvédère—at Montfort l'Amaury west of Paris. Now a museum, it looks like a large dollhouse, and holds his collection of small charms and knick-knacks that bespeak the special delight he took in the company of young children to whom he loved to tell stories, mostly from Charles Perrault's 1697 edition of Mother Goose, and always beginning with "Once upon a time…" The most important children in his life were Mimi and Jean, whose parents, Ida and the sculptor Cyprien Godebski, hosted regular meetings of the Apache Club that included Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev, Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau and other prominent artists of the day.

 

These stories, including the prefacing "Once upon a time…," made their way into his Mother Goose Suite, a collection of piano pieces composed for the Godebski children who, in 1908, were just beginning piano studies. The brilliantly scored orchestral transcription, along with a prelude and interludes, was completed in 1911 and staged in Paris as a ballet, which Ravel produced. Since all the stories have a dark side, Ravel created a sound world to match, only relieving the implicit menace and anxiety in the final Fairy Garden apotheosis. 

 

If Ravel was more miniaturist than muralist, he certainly knew the difference and composed accordingly. The tradition of his baroque predecessors finds abundant and often highly personal expression in his music; its fastidious details fairly glow in the suite we hear tonight. The 'Once upon a time…' theme sets a scene populated, as we soon hear, with strange chirping birds, dark growls on low instruments; and ominous horn fanfares. This leads straightaway to the spinning wheel on which Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger before collapsing into deep slumber. The 'Once upon' theme then introduces   the Pavane that portrays the watchful Good Fairy. An interlude opens upon the Conversation of Beauty and the Beast, a waltz on high winds speaking for the former, the lumbering contrabassoon the latter, until he is transformed into a handsome prince and the solo violin takes up his tune. Another interlude leads to the misadventure of Tom Thumb, whose trail of breadcrumbs is eaten by birds leaving him lost. His wanderings in the forest are depicted by continual meter changes, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, while an oboe laments his plight and ravenous birds cry out.

 

The next interlude introduces Laideronnette (meaning something like 'little ugly'), the empress of strange creatures called the Pagodas, whose theme starts on a pentatonic scale, with instrumentation that alludes to Indonesian gamelan. A final spooky interlude,   recalling the 'Once upon' theme on solo violin, leads into the Fairy Garden where all the preceding characters and dark overtones are transformed in the radiant light of a happy ending.

 

Maurice Ravel (b. 1875 - d. 1937)

Piano Concerto in G major  (1932)

 

Ravel wrote this jazz-inflected work between 1929 and 1931 while working simultaneously on the Concerto in D for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. The composer had visited the U.S. and Canada in 1928 for a highly successful four-month concert tour. In New York he met George Gershwin whose music in particular, and the jazz they heard together in Harlem, influenced tonight's concerto. However, the central Adagio assai is Mozartean in its melodic simplicity—modeled in fact on the slow movement of that composer's Clarinet Quintet in A major—and reminiscent of Fauré's harmonic side-slipping. The finale adds the glitter of Saint-Saëns to the mix.

 

Among jazz-great Miles Davis' favorite recordings was Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's 1957 performance of the Ravel concerto, which is still in print.

 

Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)  

Symphony No. 4 in E minor  (1885)

 

While Tchaikovsky shared a birthday with Brahms, their artistic temperaments were poles apart. The Russian struggled to discipline his expressive impulses, while the German worked laboriously through his discipline to release them. Moreover, Tchaikovsky bore the weight of the classical model and formal tradition more casually than Brahms, who felt all too personally the colossal authority of Beethoven. 

 

The long gestation of Brahms's first completed symphony—nearly two decades—resulted in a masterpiece which appears to have exorcised the Bonn master's ghost, because the remaining three symphonies each came to Brahms more easily and in much less time. The fourth and last symphony was composed in 1884-85 and first performed at Meiningen on 25 October 1885 with the composer conducting. After 1880, Brahms maintained a preferential relationship with the Meiningen orchestra, which was comprised of 49 musicians. These relatively modest forces offered him better balances, greater flexibility, and opportunities to experiment that were not readily available with the major urban orchestras of the day, like the Vienna Philharmonic, which had given the premieres of his second and third symphonies. (Big city orchestras of that era were keen to expand. The Vienna Philharmonic had seventy-eight players in 1864, one hundred in 1885 and 114 in 1910.)

 

Brahms's explorations at Meiningen concerned vibrato, portamento (sliding from one note to the next), brass and timpani articulations (whether they should be edgily bitten or romantically warm), and string bowings (when to go up-bow and where to pull down.) Of at least equal importance to Brahms was the slur, or how many notes to play in a bow stroke or phrase. This point is made clear at the outset of Symphony No. 4. Some conductors ask the violins to play the four notes in one seamless line, while others phrase two, then two, with a clear separation between them. Brahms preferred the latter, as if the second pair of notes answers the first pair's "call." Similarly, he preferred that the first and second violin sections sit opposite one another on either side of the podium, the better to articulate the antiphonal 'call-response' character found in so much of his music.


Indeed, the entire first movement elaborates those two pairs of notes throughout, as patterns of call and response are ever-present and easily recognized. According to Brahms's biographer Max Kalbeck, the music critic Eduard Hanslick, on hearing the first movement at its premiere, declared "For this whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people."

 

Brahms was an enthusiastic supporter of the Meiningen conductor Fritz Steinbach, who, according to one of his pupils, went so far as to use just two violas in the slow second movement where the first theme is recapitulated on the divided viola section, "very delicately, as a solo."

 

Where Beethoven inserted a scherzo, Brahms placed his Allegro giocoso. It parts company with a traditional scherzo to the extent that it is cast in 2/4 time instead of 3/4 and develops thematically where a scherzo would offer up a contrasting 'trio' section.

 

The finale is a rare symphonic chaconne (short variations over a repeating bass line, or basso ostinato) whose theme the composer borrowed—and extended—from the concluding chorus of J.S. Bach's cantata BWV 150. The perspicacious ear will once again pick out, among this movement's final variations, the opening movement's descending two notes in counterpoint to the bass line.


Program Notes by Scott MacClelland

 

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