Friday, April 20, 2018

Tortelier Presents Three Aspects of Ravel’s Music

Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Last night French conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier returned to Davies Symphony Hall to conduct the first of this week’s three subscription concerts given by the San Francisco Symphony. The entire program was devoted to Maurice Ravel, but it was conceived to examine three different aspects of that composer’s creative efforts. Those aspects served to parallel the usual overture-concerto-symphony format, but with a unique twist to each of those components.

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to the “symphony” portion, the music Ravel composed for Michel Fokine’s “Daphnis et Chloé,” a one-act ballet with a scenario in three parts. For those thinking that this might be a bit of a stretch, Ravel himself described his score as a “symphonie chorégraphique” (choreographic symphony). The “concerto soloist” was mezzo Susan Graham, singing Shéhérazade, Ravel’s song cycle setting three poems by Tristan Klingsor. The “overture” was the most unique part of the program, Ravel’s orchestrations of two short piano pieces by Claude Debussy, the sarabande movement from the suite entitled Pour le Piano and “Danse,” which, in its piano version, was also known as “Tarantelle styrienne.”

Tortelier conducted his own “concert version arrangement” of the “Daphnis et Chloé” score. Sadly, the program book offered little other than that quoted phrase and a note that last night’s performance would not use the chorus. Like many, I know this music best through the second suite of music that Ravel extracted from his score. Still, I have been fortunate enough to listen to the entire score in concert several times and even have two complete recordings in my collection. On the basis of clock time, I would guess that there were a few cuts, probably of music for pas d’action episodes. This may not amount to much, but I still feel it necessary to take the team producing the program book to task for not providing either the same sort of structural outline that is usually given when a ballet score by Igor Stravinsky is performed or any substantive comments on Tortelier’s version. The decision to recycle James M. Keller’s past program notes lies somewhere along the gamut between negligent and just plain sloppy.

Fortunately, Tortelier’s conducting made up for the absence of both clarifying text and, for that matter, a ballet company. Through his interpretation, one could easily discern the different episodes of the score, which of them involved love and which introduced dramatic tension. If one did not know that one of the sources of tension was an invasion by pirates, one could simply allow oneself to be struck by Ravel’s menacing sonorities and Tortelier’s no-holds-barred delivery of them. For that matter, Tortelier put a generous amount of body language into leading his arrangement. It may not have been ballet, but it was definitely physical movement that reinforced what the music was communicating.

Ravel’s “symphonic” approach to the narrative of a ballet scenario found its parallel in his approach to setting the three Klingsor poems for Shéhérazade. Ravel was clearly interested in aligning his musical discourse with the texts being sung. The program book provided excellent translations by Peggie Cochrane; but, sadly, the English words projected as surtitles on either side of the proscenium were significantly inferior at some of the more critical moments of the poem (and the musical reinforcement of those moments). Fortunately, the spirit of what the surtitles did not capture found its way into Graham’s delivery of the vocal line, not just through the clarity of her diction and the attentive phrasing given to every passage but also through her body language and occasional gusts of circulated air that billowed through her long garments.

Presumably, decadence was what Klingsor (whose birth name was Justin Léon Lecière) had in mind when writing these poems. Ravel knew exactly how to convey that decadence without wallowing in it. That left matters to both Graham and Tortelier to make sure that Ravel’s attitude rose above Klingsor’s; and last night’s performance could not have done a better job of meeting that goal.

Given that both Shéhérazade and the music for “Daphnis et Chloé” offered some of Ravel’s lushest sonorities, what was most impressive in his Debussy arrangements was his much sparer use of resources. These pieces were not so much arrangements of piano music as they were the product of rethinking what could be done with Debussy’s marks on paper when given different resources. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that Ravel’s orchestrations provided more clarity to Debussy’s texts, particularly when those texts are rendered by inferior pianists, who spend most of their time riding the damper pedal.

Tortelier clearly appreciated the precision that had gone into Ravel’s arrangements. He communicated that precision to the SFS musicians, who then presented it to attentive listeners in all of its glory. Ravel clearly had a deep appreciation of what Debussy had done with these short pieces; and, through his orchestrations, he could communicate just what it was that he appreciated.

Readers may also be interested in learning that Ravel’s sword could cut both ways. He also did an arrangement of Debussy’s three orchestral nocturnes. This time he took the instrumental music and set it for two pianos!

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