Ravel’s Piano Concerto with Hélène Grimaud and Tugan Sokhiev

10 Jan 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Tugan Sokhiev

Hélène Grimaud

  • Heinz Holliger
    Two Liszt Transcriptions for large orchestra (13 min.)

  • Maurice Ravel
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G major (29 min.)

    Hélène Grimaud Piano

  • Sergei Rachmaninov
    Symphony No. 2 in E minor, op. 27 (59 min.)

  • free

    Hélène Grimaud and Tugan Sokhiev in conversation with Emmanuel Pahud (15 min.)

Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto is a world in itself. Here there are echoes of jazz to be found as well as Stravinsky-like asperity and tender cantilenas. And above all this floats the composer’s very own melodic voice with its fragile charm. It is the great responsibility of any soloist performing this piece to bring out all its facets without losing sight of the piece as a whole.

Hélène Grimaud is a pianist whose repertoire has for some time included Ravel’s concerto, playing it with consummate ease and sensitivity. In this performance too, she underlined her standing as an exponent of Ravel, receiving high praise, including from the critic of the Berliner Zeitung: “Hélène Grimaud brings out the countless nuances of this music with brilliant security. Black gleaming bass notes, silvery shimmering smooth passages and, in between, heartbeats with a hint of melodic indulgence glow warmly.”

Making his first appearance with the orchestra was Ossetian-born conductor, Tugan Sokhiev, at that time musical director of the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. In addition to the Ravel concerto, he also conducts two Liszt transcriptions by Heinz Holliger plus Rachmaninov’s melancholy Second Symphony.

Not a question of age

The avant-garde and nostalgia

From piano to orchestra: Heinz Holliger’s Liszt transcriptions

Modernism is older than many people think. As Pierre Boulez once pointed out, music had begun to breathe a different type of air well before the flutings of Debussy’s lascivious faun, while the “big bang” of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was far from marking the onset of a new age in music. Rather, it was Franz Liszt who in his final piano works of the 1880s ushered in a new era. In cryptic miniatures called La lugubre gondola, Nuages gris and Unstern! he bade farewell to all that was dear to the hearts of the Romantics: the sound picture was reduced to a mere skeleton, while melodies can be identified at best in fragmentary form and the harmonic writing, made keener by searing dissonances, explores a world beyond the confines of traditional tonality.

In their own day, these enigmatic miniatures seemed to be an anachronism pointing ahead to the future. Among their admirers is the Swiss composer, conductor and oboist Heinz Holliger, who in 1986 used the centenary of Liszt’s death to re-engage with these erratic blocks from the composer’s final years and to provide orchestral transcriptions of Nuages gris and Unstern!. As Holliger himself explains, he sought “to transfer Liszt’s rigorous removal of all harmonic fetters” to his own musical language “and, as it were, to allow it to cast a shadow. Although I have not changed the number of bars in Nuages gris, I have grafted a number of completely new parts on to the original. In the case of Unstern!, by contrast, I have left untouched the music’s lapidary character.”

Liszt’s originals provide the framework for these adaptations, their musical material being reproduced in at least one voice in the large orchestra, while individual motifs and intervallic structures are developed, repeated and condensed. Holliger uses echo notes and adds new sequences of notes and chords, thereby creating new layers to the music and even forming clusters. As Holliger himself points out, his arrangements are like a “dream filter” through which “different degrees of reality (in other words, ‘présence’ and ‘absence’) take on musical form”. The result is “a shadowy vision in the manner of a portrait by Giacometti”.

For piano and orchestra: Maurice Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto

During the summer of 1929 Maurice Ravel had two neat piles of music manuscript paper on his desk, each pile carefully separated from the other. The left-hand one contained sketches and drafts for a Piano Concerto in G major that he planned to write for himself, while the right-hand pile was given over to a concerto for the left hand alone, a piece commissioned from the composer by the Viennese pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in the First World War. Ravel had not previously written a piano concerto, but now he was making two contributions to the genre that could hardly be more different in terms of their formal design, their pianistic technique and their underlying character.

But both works shared the same fate inasmuch as it took Ravel longer to complete them than he had originally planned: “I hadn’t counted on the fatigue which suddenly overwhelmed me,” he wrote to inform his agent on 5 December 1930 after the latter had already announced that Ravel would be performing the G major Concerto on a tour planned for the following season. Not until the autumn of 1931 was Ravel able to put the finishing touches to the piece, which received its first performance in the Salle Pleyel in Paris on 14 January 1932. His health already impaired by this date, Ravel entrusted the solo part to the pianist Marguerite Long, while he himself conducted the Orchestre Lamoureux.

The G major Concerto is an imaginative and inventive work that betrays few signs of its lengthy genesis. His only wish in composing it, Ravel explained, was “to write a genuine concerto. As a model, I took two musicians who, in my opinion, best illustrated this type of composition: Mozart and Saint-Saëns.” However different these two composers may have been, they may still be readily identified as influences on the G major Concerto. Ravel proposed the term “Musae mixtatiae” – “Mixed Muses” – as the subtitle for his Concerto for the Left Hand. The G major Concerto reveals equally contradictory influences, for not only does it reflect the impact of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, it is also a celebration of the jazz idiom to which Ravel had been introduced during a tour of North America in 1928. Moreover, the opening movement’s first subject includes elements derived from Basque folk music, representing an act of homage to the culture of the composer’s native country, to which he always felt very close.

In flight: Sergei Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony

Moscow was not a good place to work as a composer. In 1904 Sergei Rachmaninov had joined the music staff of the Bolshoi Theatre and soon gained an enviable reputation for conducting not only operas but also the symphonic repertory. He could in fact have enjoyed a major career as a conductor, and yet he saw himself first and foremost not as an interpreter but as a creative artist. On the other hand, his commitments as a conductor were such that he could rarely find the time for any creative work. He was also concerned about the political situation in Russia at this period: peasants and workers, members of the middle class and even liberal aristocrats all resented the authoritarian rule of Nicholas II, famine was rife, and unemployment was rising in the country’s industrial centres. Although the Russian Revolution of 1905 made it possible to implement a number of tentative reforms, there was no real improvement to the underlying situation, with the result that in June 1906 Rachmaninov decided to abandon his post at the Bolshoi and move to Dresden.

The house that he rented for himself and his family in the Sidonienstraße comprised six rooms and a garden full of ancient trees, providing him with the best possible conditions to work in peace and quiet. “We live here like real hermits,” he reported to a friend back home. “We see no one, we know no one, and we go nowhere.” But even in Dresden Rachmaninov was initially unable to find inspiration, not least because he was planning to write a symphony. He first had to deal with the trauma caused by the failure of his first contribution to the medium, the first performance of which had proved to be an unprecedented fiasco when it was unveiled in St Petersburg in March 1897. For years afterwards Rachmaninov had been unable to write another note, and it was only when he underwent hypnosis as part of a course of treatment by a psychotherapist that his condition improved.

All of this must have been in Rachmaninov’s mind when, pencil in hand, he sat down to work on his Second Symphony in E minor op. 27. By April 1907 he had finished the piece in short score. Much of the instrumentation was completed that summer on his family’s Russian estates at Ivanovka. The work received its first performance in St Petersburg on 8 February (26 January) 1908, and on this occasion the reviews were entirely positive, the work’s wealth of melodic invention receiving particular praise. The opening movement strikes an elegiac note, its arching cantilenas building to monumental climaxes. And the same note is struck by the Adagio, with its wistful clarinet solo. Whereas the final movement betrays a certain theatrical pomp reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, the quintessentially Russian Scherzo is genuinely inspired, deriving its strength from its kinetic energy and revealing a tendency towards the grotesque that was to leave its mark on the composer’s later works, too. Rachmaninov had finally lifted the curse that had lain upon him as a symphonist.

Susanne Stähr

Translation: Stewart Spencer

Tugan Sokhiev has been music director of the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse since the autumn of 2008, having been the orchestra’s principal guest conductor and artistic adviser since 2005. He hails from Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, and studied with Ilya Musin at the St Petersburg Conservatory, while also attending the conducting classes of Yuri Temirkanov. In 2000 he won the main prize in the Third International Prokofiev Competition, an award that led to his appointment as principal conductor of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the North Ossetia State Philharmonic. Among the international opera companies with whom he has appeared since 2000 are the Welsh National Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, New York, the Houston Grand Opera, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, the Teatro Real in Madrid and the Kirov in St Petersburg. During the 2005/06 season Tugan Sokhiev conducted no fewer than four productions at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg: Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Eugene Onegin. He made his debut at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in 2004 with Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges. Among the orchestras with which he has appeared in the concert hall are the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, the Bavarian State Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, the German Symphony Orchestra of Berlin and the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo. This is Tugan Sokhiev’s debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Hélène Grimaud studied in her home town of Aix-en-Provence as well as in Marseilles and Paris, where her teachers included György Sándor and Leon Fleisher. In 1987 she won the Cannes Classical Award at that year’s MIDEM music fair and was recommended as a soloist by Daniel Barenboim to the Orchestre de Paris. Her appearance in Paris was followed by other debuts in Tokyo and at the Roque d’Anthéron International Piano Festival. Among the international orchestras with which she has appeared are the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, the St Petersburg Philharmonic, the NHK Symphony Orchestra and the major orchestras in London and North America. She has also worked with many of the world’s leading conductors. Hélène Grimaud made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1995, when she performed Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto under the direction of Claudio Abbado. Her most recent appearance was at the end of September 2007, when she played Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto under Neeme Järvi. Among the musicians with whom she has appeared in the field of lieder and chamber music are Thomas Quasthoff, Clemens Hagen and Jörg Widmann. In 1999 she founded the Wolf Conservation Center in the state of New York. The World Wide Fund For Nature and Amnesty International are other beneficiaries of her ecological and humanitarian concerns. Among her books are Variations sauvages – also available in English as Wild Harmonies – and Leçons particulières. Her numerous awards include the titles of Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2002) and Chevalier dans l’Ordre National du Mérite (2008) in her native France.

(Übersetz.: Stewart Spencer)

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