Meticulous. Polished. A perfectionist. These are terms frequently applied to Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). It is true that there is never a wasted note or an indistinct effect in his work. He is also linked inextricably to Debussy under the heading “Impressionist”, but Ravel’s music is less ethereal and his harmonic thinking conceived quite differently. (Debussy places unrelated chords in the ether; Ravel’s harmony is structured more like contemporary jazz. He employs chords of the 9th, 11th and 13th degrees of the scale but eliminates their roots.)
Ravel’s personality was reserved and enigmatic – he was famously more relaxed with children than with adults – and this led to the perception that his music was merely polished surfaces. So it is, but I find tremendous heart in the melting opening of his String Quartet, or the tender closing chorus of the strangely affecting opera L’enfant et les Sortilèges. Nor does his polish make him a conservative composer. What could be more out there than Boléro? The climatic harmonic resolution is orgasmic! Scarbo from Gaspard de la nuit is extreme both in its technique and its inspiration. Virtuosity and spontaneity again combine in the rousing finale of the opera L’Heure espagnol in Lorin Maazel’s taut performance.
What more needs to be said? Régine Crespin sings Shéhérezade, Ivo Pogorelich plays Gaspard, Gérard Souzay sings Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, Dutoit conducts Daphnis et Chloé, Argerich and Abbado perform the G Major Piano Concerto. This is a cornucopia of top performances. Extra gems include Felicity Palmer’s poised rendition of the Trois poémes de Stéphane Mallarmé, Ashkenazy and his son Vovka in the two-piano works and Thibaudet and Aimard in the solo piano music. Universal have even poached Plasson’s three early cantatas from EMI. This set really is complete. All that is missing are the orchestral versions of the Don Quixote and Greek songs.