Unity in Diversity

A kind of “religious week” is how Pierre-Laurent Aimard describes his work on Ravel’s two piano concertos with Pierre Boulez and The Cleveland Orchestra. The conductor and composer represents for him the “Everest” of modern music, so it was – in his own words – “a dream come true” to work on this Ravel recording with Boulez.

“As a creative artist,” says Aimard, “Ravel arguably gave of his best during the golden years before the First World War, after which he experimented in his own particular way with various new trends, but in terms of his craftsmanship and his innermost soul he remained true to himself as an artist.” For Aimard, Ravel’s principal characteristics are an underlying Gallic tone, an almost analytical refinement, a sensuous grasp of sonority, formal per­fection, understatement and elegance. “It’s interesting to note how economically Ravel composed. But his extreme way of writing is also combined with the desire to turn every work into a unique compositional project. He took various aesthetics and trends as the source of his inspiration.”

For Aimard, Ravel’s piano concertos form a genuine pair despite the fact that they are completely different from each other. They were both among the very last works he wrote before his death and as such are his final message to the world. They were written in parallel between 1929 and 1931, the genesis of the one being closely interwoven with that of the other. By look­ing both backwards and forwards, they are a symbol of Ravel’s whole nature and art, with its dialectic of calculation and chance, a dialectic that Paul Valéry felt defined a poet with whom Ravel had many affinities: Stéphane Mallarmé. Both of his piano concertos are the epitome of that moment when a children’s game becomes deadly serious, a moment common to both the poet and the composer.

For Aimard, the G major Concerto is “a light-hearted and carefree piece, with a helping of jazz, a spot of elegance, a little Basque folk music, a few mechanical things here and there and plenty of pianistic brilliance.” Boulez describes it as “an extraordinary combination of very different goals.” As such, the work could hardly be more different from its companion piece: “Here the dominant mood is one of drama, everything is coiled up tight like a spring,” Boulez explains, “and when Ravel uses jazz rhythms, for instance, the result is an astonishing radical language. If in the G major Concerto one can stress its character as a divertimento, it’s the element of drama that needs to be brought out in the Concerto for the Left Hand.” The work was written for Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in combat, and in consequence it remains a monument to the tragedy of the First World War. According to Aimard, the left hand alone “has to sound like two hands – the great challenge of the piece is to create this illusion, a game with the limitations of a single hand.” His reading is clearly geared to the word “tragic”, but this is not tragedy in a backward-looking sense. Rather, it implies a vision of impending catastrophe, an expression of the “anticipatory fear of a darker future”.

Such an approach may be best explained not least by Aimard’s attitude to Ravel in general. He has never adopted a “historical” approach to the composer. He had some lessons with Yvonne Loriod, who had a subtly different “acoustic sensibility” coupled with an openness to the new. As a result, Aimard sees Ravel as “a composer who wrote in the wake of Impressionism and who arguably reacted against it. In ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ from Miroirs we find a very tempestuous, later kind of Impressionism. The kind of intangible textures that occur in ‘Noc­tuelles’ are very modern. ‘Oiseaux tristes’ is an extremely original piece with some highly associative harmonies and realistic imitation birdsong that has been acoustically transformed. ‘Alborada’ is like a dry-point etching, and ‘La vallée des cloches’ is a single endless melody that is ultimately dissipated in an acoustic bell effect. And so we have five clearly defined Miroirs.”

The exemplarily individual approach adopted by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Pierre Boulez in their response to a composer who continues to exude a very real sense of mystery even allows us to revise our listening habits, at least if a point that Boulez describes as a difficulty is successfully resolved: “We need to bind together the large number of stylistic components and create a single style, not simply allowing them to appear alongside one another. For Pierre-Laurent, I believe, and for me, too, interpretation means revealing a sense of unity in something that’s totally diverse.”

Georg-Albrecht Eckle