The music of Ravel is especially close to Alexandre Tharaud’s heart. Now, in partnership with the Orchestre National de France and conductor Louis Langrée, he has recorded both the composer’s piano concertos, pairing them with Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Garden
The music of Ravel is especially close to Alexandre Tharaud’s heart. Now, in partnership with the Orchestre National de France and conductor Louis Langrée, he has recorded both the composer’s piano concertos, pairing them with Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain), Manuel de Falla’s sumptuous three-movement work for piano and orchestra. All three of these works have been part of Tharaud’s life since he was a teenager. Taking his connection to Ravel a step further, in 2024 the French pianist will be seen in a film based by director Anne Fontaine on the composer’s life, entitled Boléro.
“Ravel’s Concerto in G major is fresh and Mozartian in its colours, while his Concerto for the Left Hand is haunted by dark shades and suppressed fears,” says Tharaud. Both works were premiered in 1932 – the Concerto in G by the great French pianist Marguerite Long, the Concerto for the Left Hand by Paul Wittgenstein, the Viennese pianist who had lost his right arm as a soldier in World War 1.
“Both concertos were written between 1929 and 1931,” continues Tharaud. “Characteristically for Ravel, they are simultaneously unique and alike. They share meticulous craftsmanship and jazzy touches, and both evoke little automata and the ghosts of war. Moments of great tenderness will be followed by a rumble of thunder … and each of them ends with the slice of a guillotine.” The two concertos are brilliantly kaleidoscopic in their instrumentation and rhythms. “Ravel paid the greatest attention to detail in his writing for the soloist and for each orchestral musician. He wanted us to enjoy ourselves.”
Ravel’s mother was of Basque origin and he was born on the south-west coast of France, near the border with Spain. A number of his works – for instance Boléro, the orchestral Rapsodie espagnole and the comic opera L’Heure espagnole – make explicit reference to Hispanic culture. Alexandre Tharaud points out that he was not an isolated phenomenon among French composers: “The insistent rhythms of Spanish music, its ornamentation and its dancing spirit have impregnated French music from Marin Marais to Ravel by way of Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Chabrier and Debussy. The Spain imagined by these composers is sometimes more Spanish than the real thing! There are hints of this Hispanic fantasy in Ravel’s Concerto in G, for instance in the ornamentation in the opening movement.”
The cross-currents of French and Spanish music flow through Falla’s Noches en los jardines de España too. It dates from 1915, shortly after Falla (who was born in the Andalusian city of Cádiz in 1876) had returned from seven years in Paris. During his time in France he got to know Ravel. “You can feel that the two composers were friends who respected each other,” says Tharaud, “and, of course, there is so much of Spain in Ravel’s works, and so much of France in Falla’s. His skill as an orchestrator does not suffer by comparison with Ravel. The solo piano in Noches en los jardines de España plays a different role from the piano in the Ravel concertos. It blends in more closely with the orchestra – it does not dominate, though the works share a Romantic spirit and a poignant sense of nostalgia.”