As we continue our series on the music of Maurice Ravel, we turn to the Sonata for Violin and Piano and the musicianship of violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk. There are three links because there are three movements in the sonata.
This sonata is – in my humble opinion – the most quintessentially Impressionist piece of music ever composed. Debussy’s violin and piano sonata rivals it, but this sonata seems to be constantly boiling over with the musical equivalent. Ravel wrote it in 1923 at the very height of the Impressionist movement in music, which lagged behind the Impressionist movement in art by at least a decade. Saint-Saens, Franck, and other European composers who are often regarding as the last hallmarks of the Romantic period of music, can also be considered the harbingers of the Impressionist movement and the precursors to Ravel’s stunning mastery of the Impressionist style. However, where Saint-Saens and Franck were quite hesitant in opening up to Impressionism, Ravel kicked the door down. The second movement in particular (I’ve put a few asterisks next to the appropriate link above) is evidence of his eagerness – it is titled “Blues” and is more closely akin to something an American jazz band or blues ensemble would play than a Parisian violinist.
What is fascinating and awe-inspiring is the way that Ravel was able to so fully incorporate blues influences into his music and still have it remain both classically French and traditionally pure. As Denk says of the work, “It’s a croissandwich.” By this he means that it takes an American musical style (blues) and views it through the lens of a French musical format (Parisian classical). The blues element is heard in the sarcasm, the slides, the swinging melodies, and the harmonic tension that is reminiscent of B.B. King, George Gershwin, and Etta James. The Parisian classical element is heard in the tenderness, the refinement of the phraseology, the delicate pizzicato passages, the passionate waves of legato, and the maturity of the harmonic structure that elicits comparisons with Franck, Elgar, Faure, and others.