Reflections: The Piano Music of Maurice Ravel

Reflections: The Piano Music of Maurice Ravel
By Paul Roberts
Amadeus Press; 188 pages
A review by R. C. Speck

There’s nothing like reading music lovers describing the music they love. You know that for all its technical acumen and clever turns of phrase, the writing can’t possibly be accurate. It’s music, after all, not something tangible. Yet the passion and excitement bursts out of the writing like color from a freshly blossomed flower. That’s when the money leaves your bank account, and you start downloading music like crazy.

So that’s my overall impression of Reflections: The Piano Music of Maurice Ravel by British pianist Paul Roberts. Beginners might find some passages challenging but never dull. On the other hand, I have no doubt that readers who either know the piano or know Ravel will find this book fascinating.

At stake here is the unraveling of Ravel’s music, its secrets and mysteries. How much was Ravel influenced by Debussy? In what way was he a student of Liszt? How much was he inspired by poetry or painting or comedy? How did other musicians, especially pianist Ricardo Vińes, contribute to Ravel’s legacy? How are some of his pieces under-appreciated because of misinterpretations or dull performances? How exactly does the music of Ravel deliver a sense of dislocation or loss, or joy and redemption? How can we hear echoes of Ravel in jazz today? How can Ravel take us from the audacity of the virtuoso in one piece to the intimacy of the amateur in another? Roberts shares with us the actual scores and goes through them note by note if necessary to find out.

Ravel’s pieces that get the most scrutiny include the early masterpiece “Jeux d’Eau,” his 5-piece collection Miroirs, his solo piano work Gaspard de la Nuit, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, his piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin, and his most popular works, the Sonatine and Ma Mère l’Oye.

Roberts includes a comprehensive appendix, which includes instructions and insights on how to play the works discussed in the book as well as a collection of Ravel’s literary sources translated into English.

This book is not so much a biography as it is a literary love song for the music of Maurice Ravel. Roberts does follow Ravel chronologically through his life and provide appropriate insight and details. In particular, Roberts describes Ravel’s rivalry with Debussy, his correspondences with friends and colleagues, and, most memorably, his horrific experiences as an ambulance driver during World War I. Primarily, however, this is book about Ravel’s works for the piano and all the unnamable things they can do to you. Paul Roberts does his level best to count all them all.

This book review appeared in the fall 2012 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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