For so long, Ravel was regarded as a follower of Debussy, composing in his slipstream and benefitting from his impressionist innovations. However, Ravel was far more than an imitator; the originality, beauty and hedonistic mischievousness so common to his work has assured his place as one of the most popular composers France has ever produced.
An absolute master of orchestration, his version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is possibly the sole example of an original composition bettered by its arrangement. Ravel’s ballets, Daphnis et Chloe and Ma Mere l’Oye/ contain further examples of the composer’s orchestral dexterity.
Ravel had a great interest in jazz, and was among the first composers to actively fuse the genre with western concert music. Both his piano concerti, and more famously, his Bolero thrill the listener with thumping, insistent rhythm and colourful jazzy chords. Indeed, Gershwin, who is often credited as the primary “crossover” composer, was one of Ravel’s greatest admirers.
Ravel’s piano works are among the most technically challenging in the repertoire. Le Tombeau de Couperin, Miroirs and in particular, Gaspard de La Nuit, all present differing, original challenges to even the most agile pianist. The result is a body of work that evokes landscapes, moods and characters like few composers have managed before and since. Une Barque sur L’ocean from Miroirs, for example, is perhaps the most convincing representation of water ever composed for the instrument.
Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand, Miroirs, Daphnis et Chloe, Gaspard de la Nuit
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