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Ravel has composed music that any audiophile can love, if only for its range of dynamics, from the extreme delicacy of the Pavane for a Dead Princess to the shattering climactic moments of Daphnis and Chloé. There are plenty of other reasons to admire his works, of course. Large and small, they exult in colorful exoticism and conjure austere images of ancient scenes. In the realm of chamber music, his String Quartet is among the few French works to be found in the regular repertory alongside the hallowed masterpieces of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. In his later career he would compose a violin-and-piano Sonata and a Duo Sonata for violin and cello, but perhaps his most ambitious chamber work, the Piano Trio, dates from 1914, on the eve of the First World War.
Following closely on the heels (or the toes?) of Daphnis, the Trio signals a new maturity for the composer. The somber opening movement incorporates elements of Ravel’s Basque heritage, perhaps even including remnants of a recently abandoned piano concerto on Basque themes. As far as sonorities go, Ravel (certainly one of the acknowledged masters of orchestration) has a tendency, both here and in his later Violin Sonata, to dwell on what he described as the incompatibility of the piano’s percussive sound and the sustained tones of the string instruments. This juxtaposition is, in fact, an essential factor in what makes the music so alluring; the sense of competition is palpable, although there is a distant quality to the emotional tone. Fugal elements in the central section remind us of Ravel’s awareness of “antique” music and forms, as will the Passacaille that comes later.
The second movement takes its title, Pantoum, from an Eastern poetic form found in the writings of Verlaine and Baudelaire; its tempo is brisk and exuberant, almost sprightly, and the complexities reveal Ravel’s technical brilliance. The slow third movement stretches out over a repeated eight-measure theme first heard in the lowest register of the piano. The processional quality is reinforced by the relentlessly increasing dynamic level, which eventually subsides, leading directly into the finale. Here Ravel unleashes his forces with vigor, demanding heroic sonorities that verge on the orchestral.
Dennis Bade is the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Associate Director of Publications.