Composer: Maurice Ravel (b. 1875 - d. 1937)
Performance date: 29/06/2014
Venue: Bantry Library
Composition Year: 1914
Recording Engineer: Richard McCullough, RTE
Instrumentation Category:Piano Trio
Alina Ibragimova -
Alban Gerhardt - [cello]
Philippe Cassard - [piano]
Look they say I’m dry at heart. That’s wrong. And you
know it. I am Basque. Basques feel things violently but they say little about
it and only to a few.
Ravel’s Piano Trio
was born in that idyllic summer of 1914, that last glimpse of the old world
before the slaughter in the trenches changed everything. We have no record of a
commission but it seems to have been written with his Italian composer-pianist
friend, Alfredo Casella, and the violinist-composer George Enescu in mind.
Ravel and Enescu had studied together at the Conservatoire under André Gédalge,
to whom Ravel dedicated the Trio; unfortunately Enescu was in
correspondence that summer is full of despairing references to the composition
of the Trio, which was causing him all sorts of problems, doubtless connected
with his ambitious plans for the second movement.
The outbreak of the
Great War changed all that. Ravel, like so many millions of others, was seized
with patriotic fervour and, though he was manifestly unfit for active service,
he grimly set about the business of joining the armed forces. But first he had
to finish the Trio: I am working with the
certainty, the lucidity of a madman. But sometimes depression is at work as
well and suddenly there I am sobbing over my sharps and flats. He claimed
to have done five months work in five weeks, concluding with the triumphant
trumpet-like conclusion to the last movement.
The first movement
opens with the unforgettable main theme picked out by the piano before the
strings add their vibrant voices. While writing this movement, Ravel had been
obsessed with the idea of writing a rhapsody to the Basque country where he was
born. The lilting rhythm and irregular metre of the opening theme were Ravel’s
adaptation of the Basque zortzico dance.
The movement oscillates in a luminous glow around this exquisite theme and the
tenderly affectionate second subject carried to Ravel’s ear the same Basque
character. Every nuance of colour and mood is spell-bindingly explored before
the long, gentle fade to the final pianissimo.
The Pantoum is a complex Malayan verse-form
used to great effect by Baudelaire. It requires two distinct ideas which have
to be treated in strict alternation but must also make sense both in themselves
and in combination. Ravel’s solution is as masterful as Baudelaire’s, with
little or no transition he juxtaposes a few bars of playful staccato with a
floating legato Spanish-style dance tune and sustains the alternating pattern
while developing both themes. In the middle section he adds a third melody in
longer note values and a broader metre, while the pantoum continues in the
The Passacaille was an old dance-form
similar to the chaconne, where the music is constructed around a ground bass
but the theme can be transferred to an upper part and decorated. Ravel uses
this archaic form to great effect creating an austere and mystical beauty from
the simplest melodic material. Introduced at the very bottom of the piano, the
theme rises as it develops in textural complexity to reach its highest pitch
before subsiding to the gloom from which it evolved – at which point, with a
simple change of harmony, light breaks in with the opening of the last movement
– a magically translucent shimmer in all three instruments. This radiant mood
is soon engulfed by an increasingly insistent and triumphalist fervour that is
driven on by fanfare figures in an extravagantly written piano part. And so did
Ravel go off to war, with his piano trio trumpet fanfares driving him on.
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