ravelalbum.jpgSerenade grotesque is Ravel’s first composition for the piano. Composed in or about 1893, it is a product of his student days at the Paris Conservatoire. Although a minor piece, it identifies a major talent and an astute craftsman; Its existence was known, but it was “discovered,” along with several other pieces belonging to Ravel’s formative years, by the Queens College (New York) musicologist Arbie Orenstein who first performed it on February 23rd, 1975, in Charles C. Colden Auditorium, Flushing, New York. In his preface to the first edition, Orenstein notes a parentage between Serenade grotesque and Scarbo (of Gaspard de la nuit) and relates it also to Alborada del gracioso (of Miroirs). Ravel himself, in his biographical sketch, acknowledged the influence of Chabrier, one of his heroes.

It was in those school days at the Conservatoire that a fellow student, Ricardo Vines, had introduced Ravel to the poetry of Bertrand. Vines, who was to become a renowned pianist and a champion of new French music of the time, remained a very close friend of Ravel’s and a devoted interpreter of his music.

Outside of the literary cognoscenti, the celebrity of Louis (Aloysius) Bertrand rests today on the three pieces that constitute Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit in his short and ailing life (he died in 1841 at the age of 34) Bertrand composed a number of prose poems which were only published after his death. The bulk of his poems are collected under the title of Le Gaspard de la nuit, Fantaisies à la manière de Rembrandt et Collet, in three books. That these fantasies of Caspar of the Night are in the manner of Rembrandt and Collot (17th century French etcher) reflects not only the delicacy and justness with which these poems are chiseled, but their overall character too – Rembrandt representing the philosopher and Collot the prankster. These poems influeced the whole romantic movement in French literature, and also established Bertrand as a precursor of such symbolist and surrealist poets as Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Breton.

Ondine, the water sprite luring young men to her castle, there to reign as the king of the lakes… Le Gibet (the gibbet), where hangs a corpse reddened by the setting sun, while a bell tolls beyond the horizon… Scarbo, the diabolic dwarf of a nightmare, growing taller like the tower of a gothic cathedral… Haunting, exalted romantic visions that found in Ravel’s music pianistic expressions which are all the more intense by virtue of their precision.

The first of the three poems Ravel selected for his tone pictures, Ondine, is the ninth poem of the third book. Le Gibet and Scarbo are not from Gaspard de la nuit proper, but were published in the same volume as part of a group of individual poems from Bertrand’s portfolio (although there is another Scarbo in the third book of Gaspard).

And, who is this Gaspard anyway? Who else but Satan!

Composed during the summer months of 1908, Gaspard de la nuit was first performed by Richard Vines in January 1909, in a Société Nationale recital at the Salle Erard, Paris.

Petrouchka and Les cinq doigts are two dissimilar compositions dating from the same year, 1921. They are dissimilar not so much in compositional style as in instrumental writing. The eight short pieces (“very easy pieces on five notes” specifies the score) for the five fingers (one note for each finger of the right hand which remains in the same position most of the time) are, indeed, easy enough to be played by industrious beginners. Interpretively, though, they serve to detect musical talent as they contain very few indications with regard to tempo, dynamics, phrasing, etc., and a good deal is left to the imagination and musicality of the player, whether a beginner or a seasoned concert artist. Not top-grade Stravinsky, to be sure, as Stravinsky of such qualification was already ten years behind and never to come back, these little pieces deserve in the least a condescending appreciation in the context of what the composer’s interjacent years had offered.

The major works of these years, Le Rossignol, I’Histoire du soldat, or Les Noces, are only second cousins to L’Oiseau de feu, Petrouchka and Le Sacre du printemps, the three great ballet scores. Stravinsky was at the end of a period of transition. He had already embarked in the lifelong occupation of masquerading other people’s styles – Pergolesi, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Weber, Webern… Hence Les cinq doigts may be regarded as containing the last vestiges of the Stravinsky that was.

The piano version of Petrouchka, on the other hand, is the Stravinsky that was. Pianistically, these three movements offer a tremendous challenge to the pyrotechnician and, on a musical base, the highest reward when the challenge is met, as the score contains some of the most inventive, pathbreaking, and emotionally cornpelling music ever written. Petrouchka, in its full-length original orchestral version, is Stravinsky’s masterpiece. The piano version (written for Arthur Rubinstein) is no less one.

The charming trifle, Valse pour les enfants, was first published, of all places, in the Paris newspaper, Le Figaro, on May 21st, 1922 (those must have been the days). It was written five years prior (in 1917), an the newspaper’s headline to the effect that it was improvised (in the nwespaper offices?) is not correct. It is a piece that one would want to carry on one’s self as an amulet against what clogged the avenues of contemporary music, such monstrosities of Stavinsky’s later years as Oedipus Rex, Orpheus or The Rake’s Process.

© Notes by Ilhan Mimaroğlu

 FanfareNov. 1977, by Neil G. Levenson


 Stereo ReviewJune 1977, by Eric Salzman
A Landmark of Recorded MusicIn 1921, ten years after the completion of Petroushka, Igor Stravinsky arranged, for solo piano, three scenes from that ballet score. The resultant Three Movements from “Petroushka” is a musically challenging and unusually difficult score which has to intimidate any pianist in his right mind.Every few years the stereo LP era has engendered a performance of this blockbuster, each deficient in some important aspect. Weissenberg and Pollini manage the piece quite well on a technical level but seem unsympathetic to the music’s depth. Beveridge Webster (Dover 97288-7, deleted) exhibits refreshingly sound musicianship, but he seems marginally unable to meet the severe technical challenges.

Hans-Helmut Schwarz on MHS subjects us to interpretative gaucheries and, in any case, fudges many important details. The recent Vered recording, which I have heard only once, is wayward. Thanks to Idil Biret, all of these recordings are obsolete. I cannot do enough justice to her command of the music and its technical hurdles, nor to the effect of hearing Stravinsky’s occasionally (and most unfairly) maligned arrangement played with such comprehensive mastery.

Miss Biret’s playing has all the clarity and contrapuntal ingenuity we expect in a good Bach performance but which never before on records has been applied to this music. Her thrillingly accurate performance has uncanny inner logic and a majestic sweep. These virtues might guarantee a great performance even in the absence of tonal charm. But that needn’t concern us, because even here Idil Biret excels; her tone is warm and seductive throughout. This performance is not only the highlight of the disc; it is one of the landmarks of recorded music and belongs on anyone’s list of “Great Recordings.”

Idil Biret (born in Turkey) is one of the foremost performing artists of our time. (Even at age eleven she was playing Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos with Wilhelm Kempff.) Whatever the reasons for her lack of recognition in this country, you can only help her by acquiring this unique and exceptionally well produced and recorded disc. Her other records for Finnadar include Berg’s Piano Sonata, Webern’s Variations for Piano and the only available recording of Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 2.

The internationalization and modernization of the keyboard repertoire is demonstrated in a remarkable way by several recent recordings by talented young pianists from all over making impressive solo appearances in lively, off-beat repertoire.Idil Birel is Turkish. Klara Körmendi is Hungarian, Hans Palsson is Swedish, Paulina Drake is from Hong Kong, Paul Jacobs and Frederic Rzewski are Americans with considerable European reputations, and David Dubal, a student of Arthur Loesser, is well known in New York as the director of a classical-music radio station.

Their repertoire is so refreshingly diverse that it defies categorization, but most of it is twentieth-century and all of it is worth attention.

The common notion that twentieth-century composers neglected the piano after the triumphs of the Romantics is, of course, fallacious.

The piano music of Debussy and Ravel easily ranks with the great nineteenth-century works, and the latter’s most original contributions can be found in his keyboard pieces.

Gaspard de la Nuit, one of the great landmarks of early twentieth-century music, is wonderfully revealed in Idil Biret’s visionary performance on Finnadar. The other Ravel piece in Biret’s collection, the Serenade Grotesque, was the composer’s earliest piano work (only recently rediscovered) and prefigures Gaspard in its harmonic originality.

Stravinsky is not a composer one associates very much with the piano, but the sound of the instrument actually suited his taste very well; he often used it orchestrally (Petrouchka, Les Noces) as well as creating effective solo music for it.

The Petrouchka scenes are the high-water mark of pianism in Stravinsky’s work, and they are brilliantly played here in a performance that rivals the drama and color of the orchestral original.

Les Cinq Doigts and Valse pour les Enfants are low-profile pieces (the latter published in a newspaper in 1922!), but they are pleasant additions to an already attractive disc of music.

The New RecordsMay 1977, by C.T. Villeux


 The Soho Weekly NewsJanuary 20, 1977


 LP compared with “Ravel plays Ravel”(EV-SDBR-3403)To the best of knowledge, Finnadar’s is the first recording of Ravel’s Serenade Grotesque, his first piano composition. It is a trifle, tossed off with mastery by young Turkish pianist Idil Biret, as is everything else in this recording. In particular, her performance of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit readily conjures up the fantastic in the music. Her Stravinsky performances are lively, even fiery – I certainly enjoyed them, and I am no fan of Stravinsky.

Idil Biret strikes me as an emerging pianist of quality: I’ll be watching for more of her in the future. Solid piano reproduction and good surfaces; highly opinionated notes by Finnadar producer and guiding light llhan Mimaroglu.

As you can see by the heading for Ravel plays Ravel, he doesn’t quite. The Everest recording is gleaned from piano rolls Ravel made God knows when; certainly Everest doesn’t reveal the “secret,” although it supplies detailed notes on the development of the Duo-Art system. There are surprisingly strong phrasing and pedaling effects to be heard here. Everest claims that Duo-Art “was able to accurately reproduce dynamics, pedal effects, methods of attack, and many other subtleties of expression.” Hmmnn, sounds like it could have been taken from original Duo-Art advertising. Whatever….. the rolls reveal a gentle, assured approach, clean and simple. lt’s really too bad there’s only about 25 minutes of music on the whole disc. Surely Ravel must have turned out more rolls than the five provided here. Solid reproduction, good surfaces.

 In the world of piano music, the Nonesuch recording of Debussy’s challengingly complex Etudes by pianist Paul Jacobs was my favorite release of the year.But recently three newer recordings have arrived which also tower above the stacks of piano records which arrived on my desk in 1976.Maurizio PolIini has ascended quickly in America as the most compellingly expressive among Chopin interpreters, and his new recordings of the Polonaises and Etudes (and the earlier Preludes) are instant classics (Deutsche Grammophon).

Two far less conspicuous piano recordings have also stayed a long time on my stereo: the Liszt Années de Pelerinage: Deuxieme Année: Italie by the young pianist David Bean (Westminister Gold/ABC Records) comes out of left field as a total surprise and renders one of the most poetic piano recordings I have heard this year (Bean is someone to watch!), and Finnadar/Atlantic release of piano music of Ravel and Stravinsky performed by the Turkish pianist Idil Biret.

There is no question whatever that her reading of the Ravel Gaspard de la nuit takes its place among the most delicately wrought Ravel interpretations by any of the many great pianists renowned for their performances of French piano music.

 FContemporary Keyboard April 1977


 Idil Biret is a Turkish pianist of considerable renown, and her performances on this album are really exemplary.The repertoire is impressionistic – Maurice Ravel’s Serenade grotesque (a student work) and Gaspard de la nuit, and Igor Stravinsky’s Valse pour les enfants, Les cinq doigts, and three scenes adapted for piano solo by the composer himself from his ballet Petrouchka.Biret has the ability to project both the precise clarity and the coloristic washes of the style without descending to the mere execution of pastel miniatures.

Particularly in the awesomely difficult Petrouchka excerpts, her approach is compelling in its grandeur – and at the other extreme, she brings Valse pour les enfants alive in such a way that the utter simplicity of the composition is no bar to the enjoyment of the pianism. Finnadar (dist. by Atlantic), SR 9013.

Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)
Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)