A French Evening with Gautier Capuçon

Monday, August 5, 2019 , 6:30 PM

Ravel/Neale: Minuet from Sonatine for Piano

Saint-Saëns: Concerto No. 1 in A Minor for Cello, Op. 33

Ravel: La Valse

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Minuet from Sonatine for Piano

Arranged by Alasdair Neale (b. 1962)

Composed: 1905, and arranged for orchestra by Alasdair Neale in 2008
Instrumentation: Flute plus piccolo, oboe plus English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, harp, and strings

In 1903, the Weekly Critical Review sponsored a competition that caught Ravel’s eye, calling for a 75-measure movement from a piano sonatina. Intrigued by the challenge (and perhaps frustrated by his lack of success with entries to competitions at the conservative Paris Conservatoire), Ravel dashed off an entry and sent it in. It turned out to be the only piece the magazine received, but it was “disqualified” for narrowly exceeding the length requirement. In truth, the magazine was on the verge of bankruptcy, and not too eager to award the 100 franc prize it had advertised. Ravel rounded off the work two years later, adding two additional movements. Although Ravel recast many of his own piano works for orchestra, he surprisingly never did so for his popular Sonatine. Maestro Neale orchestrated the second movement of the completed work in 2008, entitled Mouvement de Menuet. As he was driving to Sun Valley, he was listening to Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s complete Ravel recordings. Upon hearing the Minuet, Maestro Neale says, “As with so much of Ravel’s piano music, when Jean-Yves was playing I began to hear orchestral colors and found myself wondering why no one had ever orchestrated that movement. And then I thought, ‘why not me?’”

The Minuet has a graceful fluidity about it, harkening back to the 18th century roots of its form, tying it to the later Tombeau de Couperin, performed here last week. Rhythmically, it freely juxtaposes a number of interrelated motifs, producing a child-like patter that is playfully unpredictable. Effortless harmonic shifts peppered with modal alterations create a quiltwork backdrop for the flowing melody that is completely without artifice.


Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Concerto No. 1 in A Minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33

Composed: 1872
Instrumentation: Solo cello, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Saint-Saëns was from the generation of French composers preceding Ravel, though his long lifespan extended beyond the death of Debussy. An odd byproduct of Saint-Saëns’s long life was that though he began his career as a cutting-edge composer championing works of contemporaries who were not accepted by the establishment, by the end of his life, he was dismissed as a musical reactionary. Early on, Saint-Saëns admired Schumann and Wagner, hardly mainstream in the mid-1800s. But reawakening a sense of pride in French music was a core motivator for Saint-Saëns, and he looked to Berlioz as a model for the way forward in French Romanticism. Berlioz and Saint-Saëns began a friendship early in Saint-Saëns’s life, with Berlioz famously saying of the teenage prodigy “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience.” Saint-Saëns unfailingly championed Berlioz’s music throughout his career during a time that the elder composer’s music was scorned by the establishment.

Saint-Saëns established the Société Nationale de Musique in 1871, just after Berlioz’s death, as an organization designed to promote the music of living French composers. The organization was particularly interested in growing the instrumental body of French music. Members of the Société met on Sundays to vote on new works to consider for performance, asking the composers to “audition” the pieces in reduction at the piano. Understandably, the Société quickly became an influential force in the music scene in Paris, eventually promoting the music of the up-and-comers like Ravel, who himself called Saint-Saëns a genius. The admiration could be traced back directly: Ravel’s primary composition teacher was Gabriel Fauré, student and lifelong friend of Saint-Saëns.

The Cello Concerto No. 1 is a brilliant example of Berlioz’s influence on Saint-Saëns. Years after Berlioz’s death, Saint-Saëns would write:

If there is one quality that you cannot deny [in] Berlioz’s works, and which his bitterest opponents have never contested, it’s the brightness, the prodigious color of his instrumentation. When we study the scores to seek the composer’s method, we encounter astonishment after astonishment…. Light bathes [the music] and plays like the facets of a diamond.

Indeed, Saint-Saëns’s concerto expands expressive horizons with close attention to instrumental timbre, while maintaining an underlying allegiance to the organicism of Classical form and balance.

In terms of musical form, theme, and harmony, the concerto begins surprisingly, ends surprisingly, and much of what happens in between is equally unexpected. Throughout these twists and turns, though, Saint-Saëns comes up with melodies and phrases that are so attractive and memorable that we could easily overlook these architectural innovations. The concerto is written as a single continuous movement with a structure that is unique to itself. In one sense, we can think of the concerto as a modified traditional three-movement work in which the movements have been shorten and concatenated. On the other hand, the piece can be construed as a much-expanded sonata form movement with a minuet inserted into the development section.

Concertos often begin with stable, solid orchestral introductions to set the groundwork for the soloist’s virtuosic drama. Here, the cellist enters immediately and within three measures has set up two motivic elements that Saint-Saëns will return to repeatedly throughout the work. The cascading triplet theme in the cello will become the most important thematic aspect of the piece, providing material for development and transition as well as unifying the lengthy movement melodically. At the end of the cascade, there is a very peculiar chromatic figure (called a “common tone German augmented sixth chord,” certainly commonly known!), establishing the essential color palette Saint-Saëns will explore in piece.

The first segment of the concerto plays with these basic building blocks, weaving in a lyrical subsidiary theme before moving to what seems like a development section. Saint-Saëns gradually slows the momentum here until the strings enter with a detached minuet theme ushering in the second segment of the work. While there’s no dedicated cadenza in the piece, the cellist is offered some moments of virtuosic solo work during this section. The final section of the concerto picks up with the original cascading theme, sounding at first like a recapitulation. But Saint-Saëns has other ideas:  he eventually introduces a completely new theme—haunting and nostalgic—which leads to a thrilling second development section. The coda unexpectedly moves to A major, exiting so quickly we hardly have time to process what has hit us.


Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

La Valse

Composed: 1919-20
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets plus bass clarinet, 2 bassoons plus contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 6 percussion (tambourine, snare drum, castanets, tam-tam, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, bass drum, crotales, glockenspiel), 2 harps, and strings

While Ravel reaches back to the Baroque dance tradition for the Minuet that opened our concert, his mesmerizing La Valse draws its inspiration from the decadent balls of 19th century Vienna. Here, though, Ravel’s depiction is more self-consciously historical, following the waltz dance form from its birth, to its apex, and through to its inevitable collapse. Ravel explains that he “conceived of this work as a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese Waltz, mingled with, in my mind, the impression of a fantastic, fatal whirling.”  Alfredo Casella, composer and pianist who premiered the two-piano version of the piece with Ravel in 1920, divided the music into three sections: “The Birth of the Waltz”, “The Waltz”, and “The Apotheosis of the Waltz.”  Ravel revealed the program of the first part of the piece at the beginning of the printed score:

Whirling clouds give glimpses through clearings, of couples waltzing. The clouds scatter little by little. One sees an immense hall populated with a twirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth fortissimo. An Imperial Court, about 1855.

Indeed the waltz seems to emerge from the primordial soup as snippets of seemingly familiar waltz tunes (some even from his own 1911 Valses Nobles et Sentimentales) peek through the morass. As the recognizable 3/4 meter emerges in earnest, so begins a lively medley of waltzes “twirling”. At the end, the dance spins into a chaotic whirlwind, as elements that brought the waltz together by the second section assert their individuality and wholly destroy what they have created.

Ravel was composing this piece under the long shadow of World War I, and the shockingly violent ending to the piece could not help but be associated with the brutality that Europe had witnessed in its recent past. The narrative itself, detailing the rise and fatal fall of a dance form so closely associated with the Viennese aristocracy, parallels the shifting political tides on the continent over the previous 75 years, though Ravel always denied an overt metaphorical message in this music.


Program notes by Jon Kochavi.