Ravel: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano with Anne Akiko Meyers, Violinist and Anton Nel, Pianist

Ravel began writing his second violin sonata in 1923, and worked on it off and on for four years. He completed it in 1927, and dedicated it to his friend, violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange. Ravel himself was the pianist at the premiere, which took place in Paris in May 1927 with none other than George Enescu taking the violin part. It was to be the last piece of chamber music Ravel would ever write.

The first movement is peaceful and reflective, with more than a hint of melancholy. The entire movement is wonderfully inventive, and the last few bars, beginning at about 7:15 in the video below, are exquisitely lovely.

The second movement, marked “Blues”, is the most daring of the three movements. It is bold and brash, full of unexpected accents and sensual slides. Ravel commented on it as follows during his trip to the United States in 1928:

To my mind, the ‘blues’ is one of your greatest musical assets, truly American despite earlier contributory influences from Africa and Spain. Musicians have asked me how I came to write ‘blues’ as the second movement of my recently completed sonata for violin and piano…. While I adopted this popular form of your music, I venture to say that nevertheless it is French music, Ravel’s music, that I have written. Indeed, these popular forms are but the materials of construction, and the work of art appears only on mature conception where no detail has been left to chance.

The third movement reminds me of nothing so much as a race, right down to the starter’s traditional, “On your mark… Get set… Go!”  The violin explodes off the starting block at measure 15 and sets a blistering pace that continues unabated all the way to the finish line.

This video features an absolutely brilliant performance by Anne Akiko Meyers on violin and Anton Nel on piano. It was recorded in October 2012 at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas. I was especially struck by the audio presence and true-to-life sound of both the violin and piano. Kudos to the sound engineer!

The tempo indications and the start times of the three movements are as follows:

1. Allegretto (0:00)
2. Blues. Moderato (7:55)
3. Perpetuum mobile. Allegro (13:44)

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Published in: on February 28, 2018 at 4:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Maurice Ravel: Boléro (or) A Grown-Up’s Guide to the Orchestra

Maurice Ravel

First, a word about the subtitle. A Grown-Up’s Guide to the Orchestra was my idea obviously, not Ravel’s, inspired by Britten’s Young Person’s Guide which I featured here last month. Having done my best in that post to introduce young people to the orchestra, I feel duty-bound to do the same for grown-ups, and can think of no better way than through Ravel’s Boléro, which shares at least this much in common with Britten’s famous work: both feature the instruments of the orchestra, either in extended solo passages or together with other instruments, in ways designed to showcase their unique voices and character. To be sure, Britten approaches this objective in a more comprehensive, methodical fashion, but his aims were both musical and didactic, while Ravel’s were strictly musical.

Music historian, university professor, and author Betsy Schwarm wrote the following description of Boléro, to which I have added some time stamps from the video below.

Boléro is a one-movement orchestral work composed by Maurice Ravel, known for beginning softly and ending, according to the composer’s instructions, as loudly as possible. Commissioned by the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, Boléro was first performed at the Paris Opéra on November 22, 1928, with a dance choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska. The work has been featured in many films since its creation, and was an integral part of the plot in Blake Edwards’ 1979 film “10”, starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek.

Initially, Rubinstein asked Ravel to create for her a work with Spanish character, suggesting that he – a highly skilled orchestrator who six years earlier had reworked Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – might adapt for orchestra some piano pieces by the Spaniard Isaac Albéniz. But after some consideration, Ravel instead wrote his own original composition, a piece he called Boléro – though some observed that the rhythms were more like those of the fandango and seguidilla than the bolero. At its debut Rubinstein herself took the solo role of a sultry café dancer enticing her masculine audience, whose growing excitement is reflected in the work’s signature crescendo.

Boléro is a set of 18 variations on an original two-part theme – or perhaps, more properly speaking, 18 orchestrations of that theme – for the theme itself does not change, though the instruments do. After an opening rhythm on the snare drum (a rhythm that continues unabated throughout the work, and which always makes me think of castanets – DR), the piece proceeds as follows:

  1. [0:40] solo flute (in the instrument’s low range)
  2. [1:30] solo clarinet (also low in the range)
  3. [2:20] solo bassoon (high in its range)
  4. [3:10] solo E-flat clarinet (smaller and higher in pitch than the standard B-flat clarinet)
  5. [4:00] solo oboe d’amore (between the oboe and the English horn in pitch and tone)
  6. [4:50] muted trumpet and flute (the flute floating like overtones parallel to the trumpet’s line)
  7. [5:40] solo tenor saxophone (an unusual inclusion in an orchestra, but Ravel liked jazz)
  8. [6:30] solo soprano saxophone (a small, straight, high-pitched saxophone)
  9. [7:20] French horn and celesta (the bell-like tones of the latter parallel to the horn’s line)
  10. [8:08] quartet composed of clarinet and three double-reeds (a combination organlike in timbre)
  11. [8:58] solo trombone (replete with sensuously sliding passages)
  12. [9:49] high woodwinds (growing more strident in tone)

With variation 13 [10:38], the strings finally emerge from their background role to take the lead for the remaining variations. The crescendo continues to build; the drumbeat persists, becoming ever more prominent. Before long, trumpet accents are added, contributing to the intensity until, in the final moments, the full orchestra is tossed into the mix – trombones, cymbals, and all – bringing the piece to an exultant, if abrupt, conclusion.

Notes by Betsy Schwarm

In this video, Valery Gergiev (pronounced va-ler-y ger-gyev) leads the London Symphony Orchestra. You will notice that Gergiev doesn’t conduct with a baton, as most conductors do, nor with his bare hands, as he does in my post of his performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird. “But what,” I hear you ask, “is with the toothpick?” I confess, I don’t know why he conducts with a toothpick. Some have suggested that he uses it as a protest against those who have criticised him for not using a baton when he conducts, just his hands. Others have said that he began using a toothpick after his baton flew into the orchestra or the audience. Still others have postulated that using a toothpick requires the musicians to watch the conductor more attentively. I haven’t found a definitive answer, which may have to wait until Gergiev himself addresses this question.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this extraordinary performance of one of Ravel’s many masterpieces.

Published in: on December 31, 2017 at 5:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Maurice Ravel: String Quartet in F major Performed by The Hagen Quartett

Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel

Once again, I am indebted to Seattle’s classical music station, KING FM, for my choice of music for this blog, this time for reaquainting me with the String Quartet in F major by Maurice Ravel.  It had been many years since I had heard this piece, and I had forgotten what a vibrant, exciting work it is until I heard it earlier this month on KING FM in a brilliant performance by the Berg Quartett.

Incidentally, KING FM recently concluded their Fall Fund Drive, during which I was glad to renew my membership.  You can too, if you are so inclined.  Just go to king.org, where you can listen to KING FM 24 hours a day no matter where in the world you are, and click on “Donate”.

Ravel composed his lone string quartet in 1902-03, and it was first performed in Paris in March 1904.  Ravel dedicated it to his friend and teacher Gabriel Fauré, who, in a strange lapse of judgment – and despite being the dedicatee – described the last movement as “stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure.”  Debussy’s assessment was more perceptive.  He wrote to Ravel, “In the name of the gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.”

The ensemble featured here, the Hagen Quartett, was founded in Salzburg, Austria in 1981 by four siblings: violinists Lukas and Angelika, violist Veronika, and cellist Clemens.  Angelika left the quartet in 1987, and was succeeded as second violinist by Annette Bik and later by Rainer Schmidt.  This performance took place in 2000 at the Mozarteum Concert Hall in Salzburg.  While no recording can fully capture the excitement and presence of a live performance, this video comes as close to that ideal as any I’ve seen.

If you enjoy this quartet, and are not already familiar with Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor, I encourage you to click here to watch a thrilling performance of that piece too.  I promise you will enjoy it.  Both are masterpieces of the very first rank.

The four movements of the quartet are marked as follows: 1. Allegro moderato, Très doux, 2. Assez vif. Très rythmé, 3. Très lent, and 4. Vif et agité.

Published in: on October 31, 2013 at 10:16 am  Comments (4)  
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My Interview with Lola Astanova

“Everything (Horowitz) did had his own individual and unmistakable stamp, which is not only desirable, but is an absolute must for an artist.”

lola astanovaThis interview had its beginnings in an email that I received last month from Lola Astanova, as one of many who registered at her website, lolaastanova.com.  The email introduced a video of Lola playing Chopin’s magnificent étude Op. 25 No. 12, together with a short message from Lola about supporting the arts during difficult economic times.  I was crazy about her Chopin, and shared her conviction about the arts, and wrote back to tell her so.

A few days later I received another email, thanking me for introducing Lola to readers of this blog through her videos of Rachmaninoff’s second sonata, and pointing out that the year of her birth as given in my comments (1981) made her a little older than she really is.  I did a little more research and found a different source that listed her year of birth as 1982, and updated my blog accordingly.  I also wrote back to suggest an interview with Lola that would address this and other questions that I thought would be of interest to her growing number of fans and admirers.  I was happily surprised to receive – just two days later – an invitation to submit my questions via email for Lola to answer in writing.

What follows are my questions and Lola’s responses.  My thanks to Natalie, Lola’s personal assistant, for facilitating this interview, and especially to Lola herself, not only for her candid, illuminating answers, but for sharing so generously of her work and talent through her many YouTube videos.  Lola, you have opened wide the treasure chest of great music for many who might otherwise never have known the riches that lie within.

All right, let’s begin!

DERRICK:  I apologize for having misstated the year of your birth on my blog.  In my desire to make you better known to my readers, I had to choose among unreliable sources for some information.  Would you like to tell us your correct birthday?

LOLA:  I never intended to hide my correct date of birth…I think it was, probably, accidentally left out from my original online bio.  But by now it’s become such a huge deal that I feel like having some fun with it and keeping everyone guessing. (Smiles)

DERRICK:  Would you mind filling in a few more biographical details?  I know that you were born in Tashkent.  Would you like to share any information about your family and early life?  Did your musical education begin at home?

LOLA:  Sure.  My mother is a music teacher.  We had an old upright at home so she used to play it from time to time, and I used to stare at her and think: “It would be so nice to play that thing!”  But it was actually my dad who convinced her to get me started with piano lessons.  He really wanted me to learn “Fur Elise” and a few other tunes to play for him after work.  I’m sure he never imagined that music would become my career.

DERRICK:  Do you remember how you were introduced to classical music, and the first piece of classical music that you were excited about?

LOLA:   I guess the first piece that I was consciously truly excited about learning was Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu”.  I was about ten years old, but I had heard and loved that piece from the early childhood.  The score looked very busy with lots of notes so in my mind playing it well somehow symbolized being a good pianist.

DERRICK:  We know that you began to study piano at the age of six with Professor Tamara Popovich.  When and where was your first solo recital?  Do you remember the details of your program?

LOLA:  My first recital was in my school.  I think I was about seven and played most of the pieces from Schumann’s album for the young Op. 68.

DERRICK:  When and where was your first performance with orchestra?  What piece did you play?

LOLA:  It was Bach’s Concerto No. 5 in F Minor.  I was 8 years old and played in the big and beautiful concert hall called “Bakhor” in Tashkent.   I had seen Ashkenazy play on that stage only a few months earlier so being on that same stage for the first time as a soloist made me very nervous.

DERRICK:  What is your personal situation?  Are you married or single?  If single, do you hope to marry someday, or are you in an exclusive, long-term relationship with your Steinway?

LOLA:   I am not married and don’t see it in my immediate future.  My relationship with my Steinway, albeit a passionate one, is strictly professional. (Smiles)  It would have been more than a little sad otherwise.  I think it’s important to have other interests besides piano, and I, certainly, do.

DERRICK:  Would you care to comment on the passing last month of Alicia de Larrocha?  Did you ever meet her, or hear her play in person?  Have you been influenced at all by Miss de Larrocha?

LOLA:  I never had a chance to hear her in concert, alas.  She was one of the very few women who had a stellar career as a concert pianist and left a wonderful legacy.  That is always inspiring and empowering to me personally.  But, I can’t say that my own pianistic style or musical preferences were influenced by her in any way.

DERRICK:  You have described what an emotional experience it was for you to play on Vladimir Horowitz’ piano.  How would you describe Horowitz’ influence on you?

LOLA:   His influence was colossal.  I think he redefined what it means to be a pianist.  Everything he did had his own individual and unmistakable stamp, which is not only desirable, but is an absolute must for an artist.  I can’t say that I like everything that he did musically, in fact, I find some of his interpretations perfectly awful, but that doesn’t matter.  He always played his Chopin, his Mozart, and his Rachmaninoff.  He had a distinct musical personality and a style like no other, and that is what I find most valuable.

Now, obviously, Horowitz’s presence is still very much felt in the piano world and, as a result, many pianists try to imitate him and critics always itch to dub someone “the new Horowitz”.  I must say that I find both rather amusing.  There may be truly astonishing pianists that share certain qualities or attributes with Horowitz, but there will never be another Horowitz, just like there will never be another Pavarotti.  So there is no point in trying.  Actually, a little anecdote comes to mind: Gershwin once asked Ravel to teach him composition, to which Ravel supposedly responded: “Why would you want to be second rate Ravel when you can be first rate Gershwin?”  I second Ravel’s opinion, and though comparisons to the immortals are flattering, I’d never want to be “the new” anybody but myself.

DERRICK:  Have you ever played any of his transcriptions?

LOLA:  No, not in public.

DERRICK:  Who among the pianists of today do you especially admire?

LOLA:  YouTube’s Nora the Cat!  She has a special touch. (Laughs)  But if you want a serious answer…well, “admire” is a very special word for me.  Talent and skills alone do not impress me at this point as I’ve been fortunate to be among talented and capable musicians all my life.  What does impress me, however, are the people behind the talents – their human qualities, their aspirations and their integrity.  I know those don’t sound like musical terms, but they are no less important in music than in life.  And from that standpoint, so far I’ve seen more disappointments than inspirations in the classical field.  You know, Rachmaninoff almost never gave interviews on this subject because as he put it: “I was brought up never to lie…and I cannot tell the truth.”  I think I understand what he meant and I’m going to leave it at that.

DERRICK:  How would you describe the current state of music composition?  Do you see anyone writing music today whom you would place on the same level as the great composers of the past?  If yes, who?  If not, why not?

LOLA:  I presume you are asking about classical composition and if that’s the case – I am not aware of any composer today that I would compare with the greats of the past.  You see, to me a great composer is synonymous with original harmonic language.  In other words, creating something that sounds good and does not sound like somebody else. And in that sense, every composer today faces two huge challenges:  Number one – a lot has already been done in terms of harmony so it is really not easy to create something that is both valuable and original.  Number two – developing and refining one’s own harmonic language and style is a very slow and painstaking process which seems in total opposition of the super fast pace of the modern life.  And don’t forget that in addition to the tremendous technical skills and knowledge, composition requires a certain creative environment or atmosphere that simply does not exist anymore in the same way as it did in the days of Mozart or Chopin.

Of course, there is an entire group of composers that do the so-called “modern classical music”.  Those are the people who chose to experiment with atonal concepts, but I refuse to call that music.  I imagine that the original creators of that style genuinely searched for something new or “modern” and that a lot of their harsh sounds stemmed from the painful history of the 20th century.  But I also think that many of the subsequent works have simply been an attempt to shock the audience and generate publicity by inviting the press to endless “world premiers” of some god-awful pieces.  In my opinion the empty concert halls are in part the result of the industry’s long infatuation with those atonal concepts.

DERRICK:  How has the internet changed life for the concert artist today?  More specifically, how has YouTube, with its extraordinary library of music and musicians, changed the concert artist’s life today?

LOLA:  I think it’s fair to say that the Internet has changed not only the lives of individual artists, but the entire entertainment and media landscapes.  It’s even a bit overwhelming to think of all the opportunities that the Internet tools have opened for the arts, education, entertainment, and cultural exchange.  You are right, of course, about YouTube being a singular library of material, but there is much more to it than that.  It’s an amazing way to communicate with the audience directly, without intermediaries and outside the sometimes intimidating atmosphere of a concert hall.  It allows for an entirely different relationship between the artist and the listener and for a much closer, much more personal experience.

Another “YouTube revelation” actually relates to the “Holy Grail” of the classical music industry – the young audience.  For years classical presenters have been trying to lure the younger crowd into concert halls and evidently without much success.  Yet, over half of my online viewers are people in their teens, twenties and thirties.  I receive daily emails from teenagers who say that they are inspired, and who subscribe to my channel along with Taylor Swift’s or Kanye’s.  These are guys and girls of very diverse backgrounds, but they all seem to have a sort of innate appreciation for this music.  And many grasp the significance of the arts much more than the classical establishment knows.  For example, my video about the arts in this economy has been passionately supported by countless young YouTubers, including such Internet stars as Ryan Higa and Iman Crosson, while traditional classical organizations have remained completely indifferent if not hostile.

DERRICK:  Have the advantages of the internet and YouTube, such as increased exposure, made up for the fact that there is less need now for people to buy records?

LOLA:  From the artistic and audience interaction standpoint – absolutely.  From the strictly commercial standpoint – not yet, but classical music is, probably, less affected by that than pop because classical record sales have been essentially non-existent for years.

DERRICK:  What do you think of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony having been arranged as a concerto for piano and orchestra?  Have you seen the score?

LOLA:  I haven’t seen the score.  I’d have to see it before I can tell you what I think.

DERRICK:  You mentioned that you hoped to play in Seattle next year.  Are you anticipating a solo recital, or an appearance with orchestra?  Has anything been confirmed yet?

LOLA:  I have a confirmed private event performance in Washington next year, but I don’t believe I’ve been invited by any classical presenters in Seattle.  Once I’m invited, sure, I’d love to come and perform.

DERRICK:  If I were to select a few pieces that I would most like to hear you play, I would choose Scriabin’s Etude Op. 42, No. 5, Prokofiev’s 6th and 8th sonatas, and the sonata by Samuel Barber.  Is there any hope for me?

LOLA:  Yes, let’s start with Scriabin’s Etude.  I haven’t played it in a long time so thanks for reminding me.

DERRICK:  Lola, thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this interview.

Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin – Toccata Pianist: Quynh Nguyen

Quynh Nguyen

Quynh Nguyen

Ravel composed Le Tombeau de Couperin between 1914 and 1917 as a suite for solo piano.  Each of its six movements was dedicated to the memory of one of his friends who had been killed in the Great War that we now call World War I.  The Toccata presented here is the final movement, and was dedicated to the memory of Captain Joseph de Marliave, killed shortly after the outbreak of the war.

Although the title translates literally as “The Tomb of Couperin”, Ravel did not intend this music to evoke what one might see or feel upon visiting the tomb of François Couperin (1668-1733), but rather to pay homage to Couperin and to the French Baroque era in which he lived.

Le Tombeau de Couperin was Ravel’s last work for solo piano.  Perhaps it is appropriate to end our brief introduction to his music with the concluding Toccata, here given a dazzling performance by the Vietnamese-American pianist Quynh Nguyen.

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 6:02 am  Leave a Comment  
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Maurice Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor performed by The Boston Trio

Ravel composed his Trio in A minor between March and September 1914, completing it just after the outbreak of World War I, and just before he enlisted in the French army.

I was introduced to this piece forty years ago, through the extraordinary Angel recording that features Yehudi Menuhin on violin, Gaspar Cassado on cello, and Louis Kentner on piano.  It quickly became one of my all-time best-loved pieces of classical music, a distinction it has kept to this day.

If you already know this work, you will be overjoyed to find a performance on YouTube that does it justice, together with impeccable quality sound and video.  If, however, it is new to you, then you are about to make a new best friend.  Even among Ravel’s many masterpieces, the A minor Trio stands out as being among the most passionate and personal music he ever wrote.

The Boston Trio is composed of pianist Heng-Jin Park, violinist Irina Muresanu, and cellist Allison Eldredge.  This video was made in concert on June 4, 2009 at Boston’s famed Jordan Hall.

Published in: on September 10, 2009 at 8:02 am  Leave a Comment  
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Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand Pianist: Siheng Song

It is fitting that Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand and his Concerto in G Major should be presented one right after the other, as Ravel composed them simultaneously between 1930 and 1931, and both are masterpieces of the first rank.  Regarding the left-hand concerto, Ravel wrote: “In a work of this kind, it is essential to give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands.”

Paul Wittgenstein

Paul Wittgenstein

The Concerto for the Left Hand was commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during WW I.  Wittgenstein also commisioned major works for the left hand from Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, and Benjamin Britten, among others.

The pianist in this video is Siheng Song, and the Romanian-born conductor Ion Marin leads the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.

Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major Pianist: Martha Argerich

Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel

Although Martha Argerich and I are near-contemporaries, and she has been recording since before I came to love classical music, it was not until I discovered YouTube that I began to listen to her carefully, and fell in love with her playing.  In this video, which dates from 1990, she plays Ravel’s magnificent Piano Concerto in G major.  Her ex-husband Charles Dutoit conducts the Orchestre National de France.

I would like to call your attention especially to the second movement, which is exquisitely sad and lovely.

For those looking for a specific part of the concerto, in this video the second movement begins at 8:50, and the third movement at 17:50.