Ravel: Valses Nobles et Sentimentales

performed by Anne Queffélec, or below by Krystian Zimerman

(cover image by Jez Timms)

“…le plaisir délicieux et toujours nouveau d’une occupation inutile”
(the delicious and forever-new pleasure of a useless occupation).

 Henri de Régnier, quote published on the piano version

And here we are with more waltzes, from a French composer half a century after Brahms’ set. The work is an homage to Franz Schubert, who wrote both ‘noble’ and ‘sentimental’ waltzes, but grouped them separately.

The title sufficiently indicates my intention to compose a succession of waltzes, after Schubert’s example.

The work was published in 1911, and first performed on May 8 of that year by its dedicatee, Louis Aubert, in an interesting concert of new works where the composers were not identified, leaving the impressions to be, one suspects was the intention, more honest, unbiased.

The piece is made up of eight waltzes, and as a set takes around 15 minutes or so to perform. The movements are as follows:

  1. Modéré – très franc
  2. Assez lent – avec une expression intense
  3. Modéré
  4. Assez animé
  5. Presque lent – dans un sentiment intime
  6. Vif
  7. Moins vif
  8. Épilogue: lent

This set of eight, lasting 15 minutes, means obviously that each piece is less than 2 minutes long; in Queffelec’s recording, the longest (no. 8) is about five minutes long (!!!), and the shortest (no. 6) is about 40 seconds long.

In short, any expectations you likely have about a set of waltzes that are either ‘noble’ or ‘sentimental,’ written for piano from Ravel’s pen are really unquestionably fulfilled, I should think. While the individual characteristics of each waltz vary, and present a satisfying contrast overall, the overriding aesthetic is one of elegance and pristineness.

The ‘très franc’ of the first waltz does indeed mean ‘very frank,’ I believe, and from Zimerman’s sound at the opening, it doesn’t sound ‘moderate’ to my ear, but what does come through, unsurprisingly, and especially in a waltz, is Ravel’s irresistible, suave penchant for melody. It’s always just marvelous.

Whether seductive and mellow (no. 2), Romantic and charming (no. 3), or lively and stirring (no. 4, played attacca from the third), there’s simple, universal magic to all of these pieces.

The fifth certainly strikes one as being more intimate, of the ‘sentimental’ variety, almost whispered, in contrast with the bouncy ‘vif’ of the sixth, almost comedic in nature (I envision a Charlie Chaplin-style slapstick ‘moving picture’ reel being played to much laughter). The seventh, marked ‘less fast,’ sounds to me very much like Scriabin, as in like, very much like the Scriabin of his fifth sonata, and it reaches a triumphant central climax, overall in a kind of ABA form.

The final installment, marked ‘epilogue,’ seems to be the most…. otherworldly, if that’s an appropriate word. It’s dreamy, a bit languid, with chirps in the high register contrasting with the deep-blue timbres elsewhere in the piano. What a compelling way to finish this set.

Why did Ravel choose the waltz form? Why did he want to offer an homage to Schubert? Brahms clearly had his connection to the city of Vienna, but why Ravel, especially when the music itself bears almost no similarity to anything of Schubert’s?

None of this really matters. We have a set of eight luscious pieces for the piano, very indicative of Ravel’s iconic, ever-effective style. They also do certainly seem to be played together as one set, rather than in separate chunks.

As the set finishes with the final epilogue, the music fades away, as if giving us a glimpse at a more serious agenda and then quietly taking its leave, in such great contrast with some of the lighter, more playful passages in this piece.

It’s magic, though, isn’t it?

We’ve got something of a very different nature tomorrow, though, so do stay tuned for that, and thank you so much for reading.

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