30 September 2011

Maurice Ravel - La Valse

Waltzes are generally a really bad idea. They either remind me of André Rieu (URGH) or the Wiener Philharmoniker's New Years concert (URGH again) - two things I really don't want reminding of. There's a few exceptions, some symphonies have interesting waltz-like movements and of course Shostakovich's Waltz No.2 from Jazz Suite No.2 is quite lovely. But there is only one waltz that I genuinely love, and mostly because it's kind of weird and it's Maurice Ravel's La Valse. I'm currently on a bit of a Ravel-bender because I saw his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand a little while ago, played by Nikolai Lugansky (who else) twice in one weekend and it was amaaaaazing (my review of one of these concerts is here) and then last saturday I saw a the Finzi Quartet play his string quartet (Shostakovich's 8th string quartet kinda outshone the Ravel but it was still great, review here), and a little while ago I bought a CD of Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic playing a whole bunch of Ravel's orchestral music which is really wonderful.

Maurice Ravel - La Valse.
Performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conductor Myung-Whun Chung.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was a French composer. He's appeared on this blog before but only as an arranger, he orchestrated Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition that I posted about here. That may be slightly misleading, because he was an absolutely amazing composer in his own right. His most famous work is probably the Bolero, but that piece seems to have as many haters as lovers. Some of my favourite works by him are Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, the two piano concertos, Rhapsodie Espagnole and Tzigane. He was apparently friends with Debussy, and they really admired each other's music even though their styles were so different. One of the things I like most about Ravel's music is his use of rhythms, most of his works have a tangible rhythmic feel to them without becoming predictable. You can hear this very clearly in La Valse. Like Debussy, he could also create intense atmospheric music that glides and almost makes you drift off into a fantasy world.

La Valse was written in 1919-1920 and was commisioned by Diaghilev of Ballet Russes fame. Ravel had previously written the ballet Daphnis et Chloé for Diaghilev (Stravinsky called it "one of the most beautiful products of all French music" but it wasn't really well-received at the time). Diaghilev didn't like La Valse, however, which was the end of their friendship. It was first performed as a ballet in Antwerp in 1926, but nowadays it's mostly performed as a purely orchestral piece.

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