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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Le Jardin Féerique
Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet (1905) [10:22]
String Quartet in F major (1902-03) [29:08]
Sonatine (1903-05, trans. Carlos Salzedo for flute, viola and harp) [11:38]
Sonata for violin and cello (1920-22) [19:09]
Ma mère l'oye, No. 5, Le jardin féerique, (1911-12, arr. Stephon Koncz for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet) [3:41]
Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Wenzel Fuchs (clarinet), Marie-Pierre Langlamet (harp), Christophe Horák (violin) Simon Roturier (violin), Ignacy Miecznikowski (viola), Bruno Delepelaire (cello)
rec.  26 and 29 February 2019, Nikodemuskirche, Berlin-Neukölln (Quartet, Sonata) & 4 April 2019, Philharmonie Berlin Kammermusiksaal (Introduction and Allegro, Sonatine)  
INDÉSENS INDE139 [75:02]

This interesting CD presents five works by Maurice Ravel. Three of them are as the composer originally intended, and two are transcriptions by other hands. Looking at Ravel’s catalogue discloses that several of his compositions have been subject to this kind of creativity - and the composer was not averse to arranging others’ music; Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a well-known example.

The Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet was completed in 1905. It had been commissioned by the Érard piano company to launch their double action pedal harp. Interestingly, Debussy had written his lovely Danse sacrée et danse profane for harp and orchestra to showcase the chromatic harp made by Pleyel. 

Ravel’s work is more of a concerto for harp than a genuine piece of chamber music; it is quite simply designed to show off the sound of the instrument rather than provide a logical development of themes and interaction of the instruments. There is even a cadenza, which is rare in chamber music. This all makes for an “exceedingly lovely series of sounds.”  The present recording ticks all the boxes for sheer beauty and sensuousness. Marie-Pierre Langlamet (harp) gives us an enchanting performance which will long stay in the mind and she is ably accompanied by the other soloists.

Maurice Ravel’s string quartet is often lumped together with Debussy’s on records and CDs. Ravel’s was completed in 1903, whilst Debussy’s dates from ten years earlier, 1893.  Certainly, there are many recordings of both these works: 65 and 61 respectively in the Arkiv catalogue. (Accessed 7/2/21).

Ravel’s quartet is an early piece, written in a four-movement classical form when he was still at the Paris Conservatory. It is the composer’s first major chamber work and his first piece of absolute music; earlier works typically had programmatic or literary titles and references. It appeals to listeners who appreciate Impressionism, but also demand an underpinning with a logical structure. Clearly, Ravel was influenced by Debussy’s quartet, but never became beholden to all his mannerisms.

Although it was dedicated to Gabriel Fauré, the elder composer was less that impressed with the work. Conventional wisdom at the time suggested that it was derivative, but Debussy was seriously impressed, and implored Ravel not to alter a single note. It is given a thoroughly urbane performance here and is a splendid synthesis of the composer’s lyricism and Impressionism. The rhapsodic, the exploratory exoticism and the Spanish allusions that he would exploit in succeeding years all find perfect expression here.

The Sonatine, originally composed for piano between 1903 and 1905, was transcribed for flute, viola and harp by the French harpist, pianist, composer and conductor Carlos Salzedo in 1925; it was approved by Ravel and works well.

The Sonata for violin and cello (1920-22) was developed from Ravel’s contribution to Le Tombeau de Debussy (1920). This was a multi-composer project promulgated by Henry Prunières, director of the Revue Musicale, featuring contributions from the great and good of contemporary European music, including Albert Roussel, Maurice Ravel, Eugene Goossens, Manuel de Falla and Igor Stravinsky.

It remains one of Ravel’s least popular works and I find it deeply disturbing. It explores a range of styles from the gritty to the elegiac with rarely a touch of warmth or optimism. The reason for this lies in the composer’s bitter reaction to the Great War; its often-acerbic sound world seems so far removed from his String Quartet and the Introduction et Allegro. It has been described as Ravel’s String Quartet No.2 - minus two instruments and certainly this Sonata is stripped to the bone. It lacks the “soft landscape” of the Quartet or the opulent mood of the Introduction and Allegro. It is given a stunning, if unsettling, recital here by Christophe Horák (violin) and Bruno Delepelaire (cello).

The last work on this CD is an arrangement of the final movement of Ma mère l'oye. This was originally devised for piano/four hands between 1908 and 1910 and was inspired by the fairy tales of Charles Perrault and Madame d'Aulnoy. In 1911 Ravel orchestrated the Suite, and I guess it is best known in this version. 

Le jardin féerique (The Fairy Garden) provides the apotheosis to the work. Ravel indicated no particular tale here, although in the derived ballet it is used to represent the Prince awakening Sleeping Beauty. Much of the music is still, presenting an atmosphere of mystery and misty magic and providing a perfect moment of calm and serenity. All this is present in the orchestral version. The present arrangement by Stephon Koncz is scored for the same ensemble as the Introduction et Allegro (flute, harp, clarinet and string quartet). It is hard edged and piercing in places, destroying some of the enchantment, and I do not think it adds to original piano or orchestral version.

The essay length liner notes by Manuel Cornejo are most helpful. The font size is quite small; I was unable to find a booklet download at the record company’s webpage.

These members of the Berlin Philharmonic give convincing and enjoyable performances of these works. The sound quality is great, but, as noted above, I have reservations about Le jardin féerique.  This CD offers three of Ravel’s masterpieces for chamber ensembles and is worth the money for that alone.

John France


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