Sunday, March 31, 2013

Charles Munch and BSO – Debussy’s La mer and Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole

   Between 1903 and 1905 Claude Debussy wrote three part symphonic work called La mer. The formal idea was so brave, it would allow composer to call this work symphony. But Debussy was very careful with historical forms and so he called his work: La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestra. This title shows how humble he was, deciding not to use the qualification to symphony or symphonic poem and limiting it to the “symphonic sketches”. In fact the foundation and fulfillment of the work was deeply rooted in symphonic orchestra coloristic possibilities, so the richness of the work was derived strictly from symphonic tradition, and this could be easily called impressionistic symphony. The more that the three movements have programmatic titles: From down till noon on the sea; Play of the waves; and Dialogue of the wind and the sea. The idea of impressionistic musical rendering of extra-musical narrative was to focus on human emotions and sensibility.
   Debussy was 43 years old when La mer was premiered October 15th, 1905 in Paris. Two years later, his younger colleague, often regarded as second great impressionist, Maurice Ravel composed his Rhapsodie espagnole. In the moment of his new orchestral work premiere, Ravel was 32 years old. These two composers are bound each other as two great pillars of impressionistic style. But they are so different, it is hard to formulate a definition of the style on the basis of common points in their music. Four-part Rhapsody is a kind of a suite including dances and musical scenes: Prélude à la nuit, Malagueña, Habanera and Feria. Stylizations on Spanish folklore and clear rhythms are main difference between Ravel and Debussy. He was contextually connected to romantic national schools and in his later works Ravel evolved towards more decided rhythmic structures what makes him even more independent composer.

Munch & BSO - Debussy - La mer, Ravel - Rapsodie espagnole (1958)

   What makes these works so strongly connected to impressionistic style in fine arts is attitude to coloristic issues. Lack of clear melodic component, undecided, somehow blurred shapes are corresponding with lack of black contours on canvas, the flickering of shredded rhythms is like pointyllistic technique in impressionistic paintings. But this kind of sound coloristic is typical mainly in some of Debussy’s orchestral music and in limited range of early Ravel’s works. The secret of Ravel’s style is his sensitivity to the color of the instruments and creative orchestrations of different instrumental settings in various harmonic and rhythmic contexts. His ingenuity in this area seemed to be unlimited. And so it is with interpretative possibilities of his works. Many perfect performances of impressionistic works, especially those of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were recorded in late 1950’s by Boston Symphony Orchestra under the button of Charles Munch.
As music director of Boston Symphony from 1949 to 1962, Charles Munch was famous for his premiere performances of modern and contemporary music. As a creative interpreter of impressionistic music by Debussy and Ravel, Munch gave Boston Symphony Orchestra strong impetus to the development. The result was the legendary excellence of orchestral sound. It’s worth to notice, he was also a war hero supporting the Resistance movement in occupied Paris. For these acts of courage he was honored just after the war in 1945 with highest French order Légion d'honneur. Many of his Boston recordings made in 50’s were published in various sets on vinyl and later on silver discs budget editions in 60’s and in 70’s. Two great works recorded for RCA in 1958 (La mer) and 1959 (Rhapsodie espagnole) were reissued in RCA Camden Classics Victrola (CCV 5039). These renditions make it perfectly clear, this was impressionism what gave the full power to the color in symphonic orchestra. Treated as a factor of musical form, impressionistic ideas pave the way for 20th century music.

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