Recent Reading and Listening

imagesRavel – by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale. This novel – a series of sketches, really – covers the last decade of Ravel’s life, especially the physical and mental decline of his later years. It’s a life full of acclaim, travel, carefully chosen clothing, Gauloise cigarettes, boredom and insomnia. The book’s tone is cool, selectively detailed (Adam Gopnik’s forward elegantly describes the author as a “fanatic miniaturist” but not a “minimalist”) and elegiac. It deserves a place on the shelf near James Hamilton-Paterson’s novel about the later life of Elgar, Gerontius, another book about musical genius in decline.

UnknownThe Midnight Blues, Standard Time Volume 5. Wynton Marsalis. An album of melancholy standards with a blue chip rhythm section (Eric Reed, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) and string orchestra arrangements by Robert Freedman. The arrangements are above average, with attractively dark harmonic colors (is that a 12-tone row at one point?), though inevitably when the strings swell up I am transported to the easy listening radio show my mother used to listen to on Sundays back in 1970’s Cleveland (“Journey into Melody” with Joe Black). Marsalis commands a million different colors and modes of articulation, with Armstrong-esque glissandi, and remarkable command of vibrato and fine distinctions of pitch. But an album of ballads is no easy thing to sustain, and Marsalis’s virtuosity gets the better of him at a few moments, with irrelevant displays of facility. Maybe the tag on “The Party’s Over” is supposed to suggest a desire for the party to continue?

Ravel Enters a Contest

While looking around online for suggestions on fingering the opening bars of the Ravel Sonatine for piano, I came upon a post in the blog run by the German publishing house Henle that describes how Ravel apparently composed the first movement in response to a contest announcement in the “Weekly Critical Review”:

So that’s why it’s in f-sharp minor. Via a link in the post, you can get a look at an online perusal score for Henle’s edition of the piece that includes Ravel’s fingerings, but they aren’t much help. Not only does the intertwining of the hands remain very awkward, but you can’t keep a finger legato with Ravel’s solution. The problem is in the second measure where the thumbs crash into each other, and the left thumb has to play above the right. Anybody have some suggestions for this?

Angela Hewitt plays the first movement here. She certainly has the fingering worked out.

Orchestration Hit Parade

I am teaching orchestration at my day job this fall, so I was especially struck by the following aphorism in Leonard Slatkin‘s recent book Conducting Business:

There are only three scores you need to study to learn how to orchestrate: Beethoven’s Eroica, the complete Nutcracker and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges.

Intriguing choices, with one each from the classical, romantic and 20th century periods. I don’t think anyone would take exception to the Beethoven, but the other two choices are a little more offbeat. Both the Tchaikovsky and Ravel are from what Ned Rorem would broadly call the “french” side of the musical universe; there is nothing here from the “german” world of Wagner, Mahler or Strauss (though Virgil Thomson tried to make a case for Mahler as a “french” composer). Notice that Slatkin cites the complete Nutcracker, which involves more heavily scored music than the lighter textures that dominate the divertissement that constitutes the familiar suite (is there anything in music quite like the airborne quality of the Overture in that suite?) Thus with the complete version, you get a fuller picture of romantic period practice. The Ravel that is usually taken up by orchestration classes is the orchestration of Pictures, partly because of its excellence, partly because it is usually published with Mussorgsky’s piano original right there on the same page as Ravel’s orchestral version. But L’enfant is an astonishing piece, too little known. Including it adds a piece with voices to the list. And there are elements in the Ravel that point toward instrumental practices normally associated with much later in the century, for example, George Crumb’s music.
So what do you think of Slatkin’s list? What would be your three pieces?

Here is the beginning of L’enfante, Simon Rattle conducting at Glyndebourne: