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Ionarts-at-Large: Hélène Grimaud's Ravel and London Strauss

Richard StraussDon Juan is a wonderful little firecracker to get a concert started. Especially when the dry timpani whacks hit you right in the face and the xylophone rings clear and loud as if the executing percussionist sat on your seat-neighbor’s lap, not diagonally across at the very back of the Barbican Concert Hall.

Daniel Harding conducted this tone poem as an orchestral exercise in the spectacular, not with a lingering and luscious take on it. Choosing effects over flavor is a perfectly legitimate choice, of course, and in that the performance succeeded unreservedly. When it came time to wax lyrically, his players—the oboe above all—did that famously, too.

Maurice Ravel’s attitude about his Piano Concerto sounds just as healthy and agreeable as the work itself: “What is my opinion of this Concerto? A rather good one, actually…. I think that I found what I was looking for. Well, almost, at least. You never find exactly what you are looking for. […] And if, one day, I did, I fear that would be the end of me. Anyway, this Concerto strikes me as one of the works in which I was able to shape the content and form that I sought, in which I was best able to assert the dominance of my will.... Am I being too partial to my newborn? […] For the most part I’ve not yet succeeded in finding what I want. But I’ve still got some time…. That’s if I spend it laboring away at Montfort (I can’t get anything done in Paris), since I’m not one of those who can compose quickly. I don’t trust facility. I [like] constructing a work with solidity, seeking the purest material, and consolidating that properly. The concert [for example] cost me two years of labor.”*

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M.Ravel, Piano Concertos,
Zimerman / Boulez / Cleveland, LSO - DG
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R.Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra et al.,
N.Järvi / Scottish NO - Chandos (2CDs)
Hélène Grimaud is wonderful to hear in Ravel’s Piano Concerto; all classical lightness one moment, Gershwinesque brusqueness the next, and always coy, never too serious. There’s much to admire in that level-headed playing of hers, which has never disappointed me yet (though admittedly never thrilled, either).I equally admire that she does not succumb to sentimentality even in the perfectly sentimental solo opening of the slow movements—one of the highlights of the 20th century concerto literature. The LSO played along with robust eagerness, car-horn-honking its way to the happy conclusion like a gaggle of excited motorists.

Also Spoke Zarathustra—more Richard Strauss—began with a recitation of Nietzsche’s introductory words from his famous, famously misunderstood tome. Between the stodgy translation (not Walter Kaufmann’s) and the preachy and ceremonial delivery, this was extraordinarily off-putting. If anyone actually bothered listening, they were treated to that all-too-common cartoonish misrepresentation of Nietzsche that makes him to be a melodramatic bloviator instead of quick-witted Dionysian. Luckily all that was forgotten as soon as the double basses started scrubbing away at their instruments to impressive and sonorous effect.

It’s really a feast for the ears to be treated to this grand (possibly great) work in a concert performance. Engulfed completely in sound (M21 being the seat in this particular case), the body throws overboard all resistances and allows the waves of music to take you in completely and (in the moment) uncritically. The critical ears might have been pricked, on this occasion, by the directionless stammer in the double bass and cello episode, or a subsequent trumpet howler, but Strauss so quickly proceeds to fire up the Quattro a few more times that those become mere footnotes in the perception. I don’t care much for the pretentious silence forced on audiences by conductors that will retain their arms in the air for seconds after the last notes have gone; no more, in any case, than I do for eager early clappers… but I suppose if it weren’t for that pompous gesture, the same people who merely cough awkwardly after the first movement (where the composer surely desired applause) would establish their musical acumen by clapping right into the last bar. Ah, the best of all worlds clearly isn’t identical to a perfect world.

* Nino Frank, “Maurice Ravel entre deux trains”. Candide, May 5th, 1932. Quoted in Arbie Orenstein’s Preface of the new Eulenburg edition of the Ravel Piano Concerto

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