Charles Rosen’s review of Roger Nichols Ravel in the latest issue of The New York Review makes for fascinating reading. It is one of those reviews that will likely send me to the Web site for the San Francisco Public Library to put a hold on the book, but this may not be for the reason normally expected of a review. I came away with the feeling that Rosen was ultimately using Nichols’ book as a platform on which he could develop his own ideas about Maurice Ravel. So, by the end of the piece, I was not particularly sure what Nichols’ points were; but I figured that, if they had such a powerful impact on Rosen, I ought to check them out for myself.
Reading Rosen is almost always informative, but one needs to make sure that his text passes through one or two filters of skepticism before one decides to buy into it. In this case Rosen has written his essay from the point of view of a performing pianist; and, given the “stocks of knowledge” he has in this area of expertise, he has every right to do so. However, this creates the danger that he becomes the small boy with a hammer who sees everything as a nail. Furthermore, among the “real” nails, it is clear that he has one particular favorite, which is the three-movement suite Gaspard de la Nuit, based on the bizarre expressionist poems of Aloysius Bertrand.
My own piano-playing skills will always be far too inadequate for me to approach Ravel as anything other than a serious listener. From this point of view, I have to confess that I have yet to encounter a really convincing performance of Gaspard de la Nuit. I have heard this music performed by “name” pianists, “rising stars,” and students in master classes. Because of that latter category, I have probably heard more of “Scarbo” than of the other two movements. However, whether I am listening to just this one movement or the whole suite, I almost always seem to find myself wondering if the music is just going on for too long. I am willing to give Ravel the benefit of the doubt (since I rarely react this way to any of his other compositions); but that just means that, as a rule, pianists are so occupied with the technical demands of this composition that even the best of them lose touch with the music itself.
The other problem with Rosen’s approach is that he ends up neglecting (or dismissing) those compositions that are not for solo piano. The most serious sin of omission for me is the A minor piano trio. I certainly have no end of respect for the piano part in this trio, but it is that pure seventh harmonic played by the cello at the end of the first movement that turns me to jelly every time. Ravel did not have a physicist’s understanding of harmonic spectra, but his interpretation of the theory could yield interesting results. (Think of the way in which he “synthesizes” the third harmonic through parallel fifths in “Bolero.”) His inclusion of the seventh harmonic in the trio gives the coda of the first movement an other-worldly quality that does not deserve to be swept under the carpet (which is basically what Rosen’s profile of Ravel did)!