21 December 2011

A favourite Ravel piece

One of my all-time favourite musical pieces is Maurice Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, a highly imaginative work that nevertheless follows traditional classical forms. In its original piano version, written between 1914 and 1917, Ravel composed six movements: the Prélude, Fugue, Forlane, Rigaudon, Menuet and Toccata. Each was dedicated to the memory of a friend who had died during the Great War. Despite these personal losses, and despite the title's allusion to the tomb of baroque composer François Couperin, it is not at all a morose piece — except possibly for the Forlane — as can be heard from the Prélude below:

In the months after the end of the war, Ravel scored four of the movements for orchestra: the Prélude, Forlane, Menuet and Rigaudon, changing their order so as to conclude with a moderately fast movement. Although Ravel was a master orchestrator (his version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is more frequently performed than the Russian composer's original piano version), he chose not to score the Fugue and Toccata, possibly because the latter would have required a larger number of instruments than he had envisioned for the piece. The orchestral version thus has a somewhat different feel from the piano version. The complete orchestrated version can be heard below:

Many have wondered what the piece would have sounded like if Ravel had scored all six movements. Jack Jarrett has tried his hand at orchestrating the two missing movements below:

The results are intriguing, although I believe that Hungarian conductor Zoltán Kocsis has better captured the spirit of the piece and approximated Ravel's own orchestral timbre in the following performance of the spectacular Toccata:

Whether the following is Kocsis' arrangement of the Fugue I cannot say, but the Chicago Reed Quartet's performance seems very much along the lines of what Ravel would have done, that is, using a small wind group and giving the oboe a prominent place.

What I would love to hear is a performance of the full six movements of Le Tombeau de Couperin, in their original order and with Ravel's and Kocsis' orchestrations. That would be one thrilling concert.

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