Ravel: ‘Oiseaux tristes’ (‘Miroirs’)  [5’47”]

Abdel Rachman El Bacha, piano

23 Cover of book by William Stone

Oh really? Have you heard Ravel’s?

Son of a Basque mother and a Swiss father,  Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), French to the core, was a dozen years younger than Debussy, with whom he is often understandably if unhelpfully bracketed and who he admired without ever following slavishly.  At the time Debussy was working on his first book of Images, Ravel was bringing to completion a piano cycle of his own, five pieces to which he gave the collective title Miroirs (not ‘Mirrors’, but ‘Reflections’) .  They were significant, he felt looking back later, in that that they “marked a rather considerable change in my harmonic evolution, which disconcerted even those musicians who had been accustomed to my style”.

The second of these programmatic impressions (the first to be composed) is our Oiseaux tristes (‘Sorrowful birds’), surely the finest of the set and on a par with the composer’s best things.  As to its programme, Ravel was pretty specific: “In this work, I evoke birds lost in the torpor of a very sombre forest, during the hottest hours of summertime.”  He does so, naturally enough, through their songs, thus prefiguring the piano music of yet another Paris-based composer, Olivier Messiaen.  The scene opens with what is clearly (when you know) the call of one particularly melancholy individual.  A repetition (0’40”) of this languid, desolate and beautiful opening theme eventually picks up a little pace, leading at 1’25” to cries of alarm and a livelier outburst.  But things quickly settle back down and by 1’57” our feathered friend is back, sorrowful as before.

There exists, indeed it can be heard on Spotify, a recording of this piece by Ravel himself, made in London in 1922 as a piano roll for playing back on a reproducing piano using the Duo-Art mechanism.  The pianist in our modern recording, the Lebanese Abdel Rahman El Bacha, is a discovery for me, though he’s been around long enough for this to be my fault.  Atmosphere is nine parts of the law in this music, and it seems to me that Mr El Bacha conjures this one admirably.

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