Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit: Trois poèmes pour piano d’après Aloysius Bertrand

performed by Pascal Rogé (from the two-disc Ravel: Piano Works from Decca)
(link to a YouTube version, also a superb interpretation played by the fantastic Martha Argerich, whom I talk about below:
AND you get to watch her hands, which always fascinates me, especially with Argerich).
This feels like a sonata in that it’s in three movements, with a slow middle and dramatic third movement. But it’s not. It’s another of Ravel’s suites, but this time it at least feels like it’s in a more traditional fashion. Again, I’m a traditionalist, and I like the structure and feel of a sonata, even if it’s not actually in sonata form. By structure I suppose I just mean three movements. That’s about as far as it goes.
I was introduced to this piece by my piano teacher, who played the (notoriously difficult) third movement for her college entrance exam. At the time, I was very unfamiliar with quite a bit of the piano repertoire, and most of what I knew was Romantic-era popular stuff like Chopin’s more popular etudes, ballades, etc. So when this very impressionist piece came along, at first listen, I was not impressed. I did not hate it, but it certainly didn’t grab me.
After just a few more listens, it began to pull me in. The first two movements in similar vein began to sound much more pleasant, even fascinating, and this was my first solo piano impression of Ravel. What a composer.
I also went to a piano recital last night where an apparently pretty well-known pianist/teacher performed this as part of the program, and it was amazing to see and hear. I really liked her interpretation of it, and she did a stunning job with it. Fascinating to see someone pull this off live. I’d listened to it a few days in advance to refresh my memory of the piece, and decided it was about time to cover it.
This piece, as stated earlier, is in three independent movements. There’s no real unifying musical idea among the three, except for the style sounding

explicitly Impressionist (and maybe even very Ravel-ian), and the general concept of these movements being based on three somewhat-morose or dark (“of the night”) ideas from poetry by the Frenchman Aloysius Bertrand. It was written in 1908 and premiered on January 9, 1909 with Rafael Viñes performing.

It doesn’t take a professional music critic to hear that this piece is outstandingly difficult, both technically and expressively, or interpretively. Even just to play the notes written on the score and get your hands around the keys to make the sounds is a huge technical challenge, much less in a way that makes logical and musical sense out of the massive amounts of sound compressed into the piece, especially the first and third movements. Something about Ravel’s music I love, and this piece is a fantastic example, is the texture created by the background trickling, plinking notes played behind a slower, more solid rhythm. To balance these ideas, play them logically, and interpret them in a way that tells a story the way Ravel wanted to is an enormous artistic feat. Ravel himself says of the piece:

“Gaspard has been a devil in coming, but that is only logical since it was be who is the author of the poems. My ambition is to say with notes what a poet expresses with words.”  

The first movement, Ondine, is based on a poem of a water fairy luring her audience down to the bottom of a lake. It is flowing and luscious and very blue in its sound, and if you close your eyes, it feels like you are swimming. It is at once peaceful, but also just perceptibly dark or foreboding, almost seductive. In texture, it sounds somewhat like Ravel’s other water-focused piece, Jeux d’eau, (also Argerich there) but in a more reserved, refined, poetic manner, I feel. It is the perfect opening for this suite, and the least menacing or dark of the three. A nice way to start, but with plenty of technical challenges of its own. It is a peaceful but suspenseful and attention getting opening to the suite.
The next movement, Le Gibet, is the least technically demanding of the three, and the most morbid. It is based on the poem of the same name, and depicts, as Wikipedia says (I find even this description to be poetic) :

“a view of the desert, where the lone corpse of a hanged man on a gibbet stands out against the horizon, reddened by the setting sun; the sound of a bell tolls from inside the walls of a far-off city, creating the deathly atmosphere that surrounds the observer.”

This bell is represented by a Bb ostinato throughout the entire movement, and I imagine the challenge of creating the balance and clarity of this ostinato against the almost languid death-march type melody is what creates difficulty in this movement. It too is wonderfully beautiful, but in a grotesque, morbid, almost evil sort of way, reminiscent of the image described above. It is hopeless and dead. The piece is beautiful in its sorrow, and it is expressed extremely clearly in Rogé’s performance, where the crystal clarity tolling bell is not lost among the dynamics of the rest of the piece. It, like the gibbet in the desert, stands out, solitary and still.
The listener has at this point been lulled into the unchanging, droning, featureless landscape of the desert. In Scarbo, however, we are shocked into an environment nearly the exact opposite of the previous movement, this one full of life and nervous energy, almost frighteningly and unsettlingly so. The intro is eerie and suspenseful, and reels into a flittering, buzzing, frenetic energy of “a small fiend or goblin, making pirouettes flitting in and out of the darkness, disappearing and suddenly reappearing. Its uneven flight, hitting and scratching against the walls, casting a growing shadow in the moonlight, creates a nightmarish scene for the observer lying in his bed.” Wikipedia continues: “technical difficulties include repeated notes in both hands, and double-note scales in major seconds in the right hand.” Ravel intentionally wrote this movement to be more difficult than the current “most difficult” solo piece of the time, Balakirev’s Islamey. He succeeded. I also enjoy this piece much more. He says of the piece:

“I wanted to make a caricature of romanticism. Perhaps it got the better of me…” 

There are two huge climactic swells of sound here, and they are intense. In contrast, the piece ends on a surprising note (pun not really intended), but one that in retrospect, feels perfect for the evanescence of the movement.
As to recordings: the recording I first listened to was of the splendid Martha Argerich, likely the one linked at the top of this post (not sure if she’s Miss or Mrs. these days; she was married in the past to both Dutoit [whom I have met] and Steven Kovacevich, but I don’t know if she is currently taken.) As a matter of fact, Mr. Rogé is a close friend of Mr. Dutoit’s, and often appeared at the MSO when Dutoit was conducting in Montreal.
Anyway, I listened to Argerich, Horowitz, and Gavrilov along with Rogé. They have distinctly different styles. I am glad Horowitz’s recording (his and Argerich’s recordings are both from the 200-disc Philips box set Great Pianists of the 20th Century) is of such good quality, because some of his are quite old and scratchy. I tend not to be a fan of what I find to be Horowitz’s more percussive playing; I know he is one of the greatest pianists of the 20th (or any) century, but he’s just not my favorite. I find him in this recording, however, to be delicate and pristine in his performance of Ondine, but his Le Gibet was more beautiful and less morose or ominous somehow. It gained a darker quality toward the end when the Bb ostinato sounds in the lower register (I think that’s what that is). His Scarbo has much greater difference in tempi, and is much slower in some places, while the fast bits are not as fast as Rogé or Argerich. He is surgically precise and crisply clear, but I really love Rogé’s breakneck tempo that is nervous and almost frightening without being reckless or uncontrolled. It’s edgy, and Horowitz’s doesn’t seem to have that harried energy, although it is a fantastically beautiful rendition. Argerich, while a brilliantly talented pianist, doesn’t deliver a performance that I love as much. She is certainly the more Romantic-inspired performance, in my opinion, with more rubato and dramaticism, but also rushed in some places, making it feel a bit hurried, but not sloppy.
On a side note, from some of the interviews of hers I have seen and read with her, she is not a fan of performance in general, gets nervous, is not a fan of crowds, and despises performing alone on stage these days. She said she feels terribly lonely. In her later years, I suppose after she developed a solid and unshakeable reputation, she can do what she wants and performs mostly concertante with orchestras, and with chamber ensembles. In fact, she recently released an album with the late Claudio Abaddo of a few of Mozart’s piano concertos on Deutsche Grammophon. Granted, I love her performances of Rach 3 (with the Berlin Radio Symphony under Chailly, honestly one of my favorite things ever) and Tchaikovsky 1 (with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under her then new ex-husband Charles Dutoit himself) on YouTube, but with her solo stuff I am more familiar with (Schumann sonatas and Chopin’s works [piano sonata no. 3 and the ballades come to mind]), she tends to rush, or push the tempo, and maybe it’s working with an orchestra that keeps her more in check there, because I do LOVE her Rach 3 here. This recording (or one of her recordings) of hers of Gaspard has been considered definitive. I’m just being unreasonably and uneducatedly (uninformed-ly, rather) nitpicky. All that being said, I adore Rogé’s performance.
With regard to Ravel’s quote earlier, I feel he succeeded splendidly at creating a vivid, intense image for the listener of exactly what these poems describe. I suggest taking a look at the Wikipedia article for this piece (from which I have quoted multiple times here) to read the French and English poem (maybe not in full, I don’t know) upon which each of these movements is based. It gave me chills a few times.

 

I feel that while this is a supremely, deeply complex piece to interpret and perform, the result is an almost contradictorily easy piece to listen to and appreciate and understand, even, I imagine, for someone with very little musical experience or an untrained ear. While that kind of listener make take more readily to a more tangible melody like you may find in one of Chopin’s nocturnes or something, I think with a quick primer on the idea of the movements, it would be a great little listen and an introduction to more modern (20th century) classical music for any creative mind. Truly a spectacular work, on more than just one levels and genuinely one of my favorite works for piano.
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