The Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood on Sunday, July 24.
Jazz rhythms and inflections often sound out of place in “classical” music, like words of a foreign language thrown into conversation with great ostentation but imperfect understanding. Yet somehow, unlikely though it might seem, Maurice Ravel, a reserved, cerebral Frenchman, managed to draw beautifully on American jazz. His piano concertos, in particular, gracefully weave jazz idioms into an otherwise neoclassic sensibility. Entwining with breezy ease, the bluesy bent pitches and syncopated rhythms don’t feel gimmicky; they’re part of the texture, part of Ravel’s personal vocabulary, which is all the richer for it.
The incongruity of that has always delighted me, but in a way, perhaps it’s not surprising. Ravel had the ability to transcend gimmicks, taking a composition from a contrived starting point to a higher plane through impeccable craftsmanship and sheer beauty. Nothing he wrote sounds tossed off, so nothing sounds cheap, and—as performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet—everything is enormously compelling.
The “Mother Goose” Suite, for example, is a relatively slight work—just a few brief musical depictions of fairy tale scenes: “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty,” “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast,” and so forth—but Ravel gives each phrase such character that it sounds innocent and delicate without becoming juvenile. “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas” is, OK, more than a touch orientalist—very China-by-way-of-France—but the dainty pentatonic melodies and percussive color are hard to resist. My favorite movement might be the suite’s shimmery finale, “The Fairy Garden,” perfectly simple, practically diatonic, but with an elegantly arcing crescendo that gives it a magical, magisterial quality.
That said, the highlight of the Sunday afternoon program—performed on a gorgeous sunny day under a big blue sky—was definitely those two piano concertos. Thibaudet is a stunningly virtuosic performer, and the motoric rhythms in the first and third movements provide ample opportunity to show that off. The dramatic, long-lined melody of the second movement (which, incidentally, might be the most gorgeous things Ravel ever composed) was just as lovely, with Thibaudet letting the line sing and then, one when the winds took that over, floating the accompanying filigrees with airy grace.
As exciting as the Concerto in G is, however, the Concerto in D for the Left Hand is even more impressive. It’s already a remarkable work because its origins are so interesting: After concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in the first World War, he commissioned works for his remaining hand from a number of major composers, from Richard Strauss to Benjamin Britten to Paul Hindemith. Ravel’s concerto for Wittgenstein, however, represents far more than an interesting bit of trivia because Ravel approached the gig as a serious compositional challenge and created a truly outstanding work in answer. Nothing about the piano part feels “halved,” so to speak. The texture is thick and rich and incredibly demanding on a soloist (no one ever could accuse Ravel of condescending to Wittgenstein), and the work as a whole is darkly sophisticated, its traditional classical form contrasting with those jazzy harmonies and rhythms. Thibaudet’s performance of the work was marvelously agile and intense. The only disappointing thing for my friend Katie and me was that we’d arrived at Tanglewood to late to claim a spot up close, where we could have seen the pianist somehow playing all those notes with but five fingers.
The finale, of course, was the endlessly repetitious but crowd-pleasing Bolero. It’s not my favorite work, nor does it really show Ravel at his best, but I’m coming around to the expert pacing of the extended crescendo and the immense satisfaction of the long-delayed final modulation. Even when he does verge on the edge of kitsch, Ravel is simply too smooth, too agile, too eloquent to tip wrong.
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To my few beloved regular readers, I apologize for how pathetically long it’s taken me to get this post up. As I mentioned previously, I’ve been terribly, terribly busy this summer, but that’s all subsided now, and I can begin to catch up. I’ve already started posts on the movie Captain America as well as the Royal Shakespeare productions of Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and Julius Caesar. Coming soon!