"We are dancing on a volcano"
The Count of Salvandy to the Duke of Orleans
on the occasion of a soirée, a short time before the 1830 revolution.
I have never known how to separate music from my epoch, the time or the place where the experience takes place, should that be playing it, listening to it or studying it. That it was composed in the XVIIIth century or the XXIst century, in France or in deepest India, if it doesn't communicate something in that particular instant, it has therefore exhausted its potential and can at the very most find itself in a museum of lost and found objects. Of course, the performer must take care not to let their own story overshadow that of the work. And of course, the composition of a work depends on the context. But if it is a great work, it will outgrow and condense this essence, shared by humanity throughout time. What permits the interpretation of any music to be alive, as the reading of a verse, as the encounter with a character, is this core of universality which transports each individual to their most profound private thoughts, beyond epoch, culture and style.
The terms "Classical musician", "contemporary music", "baroque repertoire", "jazz pianist", "new music" or "pop musician", have always seemed to me awkward, to avoid saying absurd. When somebody asks me what job I do and I reply pianist, I am already preparing myself, a little uneasy, for the reply : "classical music".
Ah ! What do you mean ? What do you play ? Beethoven ? Mozart ?
Where does the label "classical" start, and where does it end ? At the idea of being labeled a "classical musician", a grimace replaces my smile. Should Maurice Ravel be considered as contemporary, classical or modern? The reply differentiates, depending on whether we place ourselves from the point of view of a "classical" musician (Ravel is a composer from the XXth century), from the point of view of a "pop" musician (for whom Ravel is a composer of classical music), from the point of view of a contemporary of Debussy (who Ravel closely followed) or from that of a contemporary of Ligeti (who would put him in the "modern" category). And today ? Is he "classical", "modern" or "new" ?
It was in 1939 that French celebrated film director Jean Renoir wrote, in reference to his film La Règle du jeu(The Rule of the game) which indirectly inspired me for this recording : "It's a war film, but yet, not a single allusion to war is made. Under an benign façade, this story critizices the very structure of society. And nevertheless, at the outset, I wanted to present the audience, not with an avant-garde work, but with a nice, normal little film". He adds : "I filmed it between Munich and the war, and I filmed it totally stunned, totally troubled by the state of a part of French society, of a part of English society and of a part of worldwide society. And it seemed to me that the way to interpret the state of mind of the world at that particular moment in time was precisely to avoid talking about the situation and to tell a light-hearted story; and I looked for inspiration in Beaumarchais, in Marivaux, in other theatrical classics".
Here is my intuition : we are between 1900 and 1930 when Ravel composes his works, from the Menuet Antique up to La Valse, Europe and the world are in frenzy, prey to an acceleration, a risk of decline and of an explosion. Nothing can stop this infernal machine, other than 1945, which Ravel was not destined to know. But did this monstrous machine ever really stop?
In 2016, when recording this disc, and invited by Deutschlandradio in Berlin, the quote from Henri de Régnier, regarding the Valses Nobles et sentimentales, resounded in my head : "the delicious, and ongoing pleasure of a useless occupation". It is the idea of The man who planted trees(Jean Giono), of the tightrope walker who is suspended, serious and futile, on his string of wishes, of the artist who works and touches up a detail a thousand times, of the child who can't break away from the imagination of his play… An emptiness full of virtue in a world full of nothing.
In the course of a discussion about the perception of Ravel by his contemporaries and posterity, the composer François Meïmoun said to me : " the question of the relationship with ones time is a very strong one. We have often wanted to make of Ravel a naive musician, trapped in childhood. Ravel's letters show, to the contrary, a very perceptive, well-informed man. In all likelihood, Ravel was in voluntary retreat, but it cannot be compared with the casual disengagement he is wrongly accused of. The comments of composers after the war concerning Ravel, greatly exacerbated this error. Boulez, notably, wanted to give Ravel an image of sterile hedonism. It is an image that should no longer exist, and which has damaged the public reception of his works. There is, in Ravel's writing, it is true, a taste for beautiful shimmering sound. This said, Ravel does not listen to himself in the sound and never seeks the reflection of his own image. Ravel's beautiful sound is always contained in an original form, be that inspired by Couperin, Liszt or Spain. This trial inflicted upon Ravel after the war completely distorted his legacy. The immense seductive power of Ravel was suspect. And this idea lives on. The likelihood is, that the post-war aesthetic of violence was not satisfied. This said, Ravel's violence is anchored much more in reality than that of neo-serialism which, a little like existentialism in Philosophy, has always cheated on its real implication in the Truth of the Historical moment. Ravel's legacy has been blurred in order to profit that of Debussy, seen as the supreme guide to the newest modernities. However, with Debussy, there is an attachment to the XIXth century French and German works which, although taking nothing away from the force of his writing, seriously question the idea of a musician who makes a fresh start at every opportunity."
Thus we are presented with a different view of Ravel's genius, far beyond his Bolero. This trial inflicted upon Ravel, is the trial of an apparent simplicity, "the delicious and ongoing pleasure of a useless occupation", is the accusation leveled by our over-productive era. From my experience as a pianist, there is nothing more difficult to learn than pages of Ravel. Every note, every bar, in principle very simple, proves each time to be of an extraordinary complexity, worthy of the most sophisticated clock mechanism, all of which sounds, in the end, like a child's toy. It is precisely this which touches us right to the core. Always paring down, keeping just the essential, stripping the music of all artifice. Even in Scarbo, his unique piece of spectacular virtuosity, it's made of a game, a diabolical one, but a game where the fantastical character is so real that we ask ourselves if he has not got the upper hand on his creator. Marguerite Long, who first played the G major concerto, complained to Ravel about the second movement, impossible to learn and torture to memorize; a real brainteaser. Ravel himself had almost 'died from it', he replied, painfully pushing out each bar, chord after chord, the harmonies unforeseeable from one to the next, never obvious. It is nevertheless the most beautiful of fluidities that rounds off this work and his works in general.
From the distance that Ravel knew so well to keep from the world, we can deduce that it maintained his lucidity. The composer of theValses nobles et sentimentales, which are a homage to Schubert and of La Valse- echo of Strauss' Viennese waltzes, did he not declare, in the thick of the world war, to the National League for French music, who wished to forbid the music of enemy states : " (…) I do not think that, for the safeguard of our national artistic heritage, it should be forbidden in France to publicly perform contemporary German andAustrian works which are not in the public domain. It would even be dangerous for French composers to systematically ignore the output of their foreign counterparts and to create a sort of national 'set': Our musical art, so rich at this moment in time, would not take long to degenerate or to shut itself into clichéd formulas. It is of little importance to me, for example, that M. Schoenberg should be of Austrian nationality. This makes him no less a musician of great value, whose highly interesting research has had a beneficial influence on certain allied composers, and here at home. What's more, I am delighted that M. Bartok, Kodaly and their disciples are Hungarian, a trait which manifests itself so vividly in their works. On the other hand, I do not think it necessary that French music should be predominant in France, or indeed exported abroad, regardless of it's value. You see therefore, sirs, that my opinions, which differ so greatly from your own do not permit me the honor of being amongst your number."
René Char said "Lucidity is the wound the closest to the sun". Ravel, who we so often label as a solar composer, shining right through into his orchestral timbres, is he not himself the mark of this deepest night, from which emerge the most piercing souls? Does he not correspond with the image of the zen master, Kôdô Sawaki, who observes that "the clarity of the moon depends on the blackness of the shadows in the pines".
In this chronological program, I chose his first works, little played (Menuet Antique, Menuet sur Haydn), which allow us to hear his musical fingerprint straightaway. His universe is there, his harmonic language already unsettling. A dark omen is modestly expressed in the mad and lightening ascension of Gaspard de la Nuit, foreseeing the final explosion expressed in La Valse. On the suspiciously calm sea, above a falsely calm volcano, we dance, light of body, heavy of heart. The world is a stage and what we offer Ravel is nothing but the echo of our childhood souls, caught up in this marvelous yet infernal whirlwind, voluptuous and deadly, of souls who ask just to be freed. This echo places itself on the world which rests, as with any precious stone, always topical, embodied in the present. The heart speaks. It's up to us to listen. It's up to us to interpret, to continue to breathe life into it, without cease.