Heading off to hear the pianist Di Wu this evening at the Kravis Center; the Chinese-born pianist is doing an all-Ravel program that features Miroirs, Gaspard and the Pavane pour une Infante Defunte.
I heard this young artist last year in a recital in the Piano Lovers’ series in Boca Raton, and she did an afternoon of transcriptions, including the Busoni/Liszt Marriage of Figaro blockbuster, and songs by Richard Rodgers. (You can read my review in the Nov. 23 entry here).
I enjoyed Wu’s playing, though not all the repertoire, and I’ll be looking forward to how she tackles the Ravel, all of which is quite difficult and full of evanescent moods that are tough to bring off but important to present. Going through the pieces this morning at my trusty upright, I started thinking about the legacy of Ravel for pianists everywhere, and it still seems to me that for them he’s probably the most-played French composer of all.
I remember reading Philippe Entremont saying somewhere that the young pianists were playing Ravel much more than they were playing Debussy, who would be Ravel’s nearest rival for king of the French piano composer throne. My experience in recital going for the past few years has been that this is largely true; you don’t hear Debussy much except in encores. The one exception that springs to mind is a Richard Goode concert some years back at the Four Arts in which he did a revelatory reading of several of the etudes, including an absolutely gorgeous Footprints in the Snow.
But other than that, Ravel seems to dominate. This is interesting also because Ravel himself felt at the time that Debussy, his senior by 13 years, got a lot of credit for his innovatory piano style, and Ravel felt that he had done it first. There’s been much critical to-and-fro since then, and certainly most of Debussy’s piano music into the first years of the 20th century, like the Pour le Piano suite of 1901, which I loved to play as a student, is more conservative than some of the Ravel pieces published at the same time (i.e., Jeux d’Eau).
Ravel also appears to be the dominant composer on the orchestral stages. I have heard perhaps one or two performances of La Mer or the Nocturnes, but any number of La Valses, Daphnis and Chloes, and of course, Boleros. And if you add in his brilliant orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures, well, the weight on Ravel’s side becomes overwhelming.
Ned Rorem once wrote that Ravel funneled “all of Liszt into the smallest possible space” in pieces like Gaspard, but was not much of a player himself, and therefore entrusted performances of it to much finer pianists such as Ricardo Vines and Marguerite Long. Therein lies the difference between being a composer who plays the piano and being a pianist, though Ravel’s sonic intentions are quite clear in the blizzard of thirty-second notes that is most of a piece such as Une Barque sur L’Ocean.
Perhaps my favorite Ravel piece of all is the early String Quartet in F, from 1903, in which Ravel’s fine melodic gift and his uncanny ear for color are beautifully on display in a thoroughly original, distinctive package. It’s a pity he didn’t write another one, though the Piano Trio of 1914 is also a lovely piece of chamber music.
Tastes change, but for now, it appears that Maurice Ravel is the most durable of 20th-century French composers for the piano, and while pianists still play plenty of Debussy, and more of them are doubtless making their ways through Messiaen’s Vingt Regards, signs are that it will be that way for some time to come.
Here’s Di Wu, who will make her Alice Tully debut in May of next year, in a series of excerpts from five pieces (one of them by Debussy!):