Gaspard de la Nuit: a guide to Ravel’s haunting cycle and its best recordings
Rebecca Franks explores the twilight world of Ravel’s haunting and nightmarish cycle, and finds the best recording of this virtuosic work
When did Ravel compose Gaspard de la nuit and what inspired him?
In 1908, Maurice Ravel entered a world of sleeping princesses, magical gardens and supernatural spirits. Inspired by the stories of Charles Perrault and Madame d’Aulnoy, he began work on his piano duet Ma mère l’Oye. His five exquisite fairytale vignettes, dedicated to his friends’ children Mimi and Jean Godebski, take us from the hypnotic ‘Pavane de la Belle dormant’ to the vivid burst of ‘Le jardin féerique’.
There could hardly be a more charming, innocent piece. Yet that same year Ravel’s thoughts also took a darker turn. Gaspard de la nuit was the result, a fiendishly hard solo piano work haunted by strange sprites, devilish creatures and the spectre of death.
Gaspard’s three movements add up to one of the most difficult piano works ever written. Ravel had told fellow composer Maurice Delage that he wanted to create something more stretching than Balakirev’s Islamey, a notorious virtuoso piece that had become part of Parisian concert life in the 1880s, and which was performed by his friend the Catalan pianist Ricardo Viñes. ‘Perhaps I got a little carried away,’ reflected Ravel.
The score itself backs up the anecdote, even if Ravel did have a twinkle in his eye. To this day Gaspard remains a peculiarly demanding test for any pianist.
Yet although the work requires keyboard wizardry that Liszt might have baulked at, in a successful performance all those notes should be serving the programmatic ideas. It’s no mere showpiece. Indeed, Ravel’s inspiration was specifically poetic.
In September 1896, the composer borrowed a book from Viñes: Gaspard de la nuit, subtitled Histoires vermoulues et poudreuses du Moyen age. This collection of prose poems by the French author Aloysius Bertrand was written in the 1830s, then published posthumously a decade later.
With 51 poems in six books, as well as 13 ‘pièces détachées’, there was plentiful source material – including much that appealed to Ravel and his love of the macabre. He chose three poems: ‘Ondine’, ‘Le gibet’ and ‘Scarbo’, each of which precede their respective movements in the first published version of his cycle, along with dedications to three different pianists: Harold Bauer, Jean Marnold and Rudolph Ganz.
Bertrand’s visions inspired one of Ravel’s greatest works, described by the pianist Alfred Cortot as ‘one of the most extraordinary examples of instrumental ingenuity ever produced.’ Yet, strangely enough, Ravel himself was no great pianist, unlike Beethoven (whose sonatas, to Ravel’s dismay, were still all the rage in France), Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov, who all had parallel performing careers.
While Ravel was not terrible – he studied at the Paris Conservatoire, after all, and would play his Ma mère l’Oye in public – he wasn’t up to the challenges of this new masterpiece. Mind you, he wasn’t happy with how Viñes played Gaspard at its premiere in 1909; Ravel never let him give the first performance of one of his works again.
What is Gaspard de la nuit about?
‘Ondine’ is the enigmatic opening movement (in luminous C sharp major), the legend of a water nymph who tries to entrap a human man. She declares her love for him, but when rejected disappears with malevolent laughter. Ravel had already explored watery effects in Jeux d’eau (1901) and in ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ from Miroirs (1905), and in Gaspard he takes the idea even further.
Out of the impression of shimmering water emerges an otherworldly tune; one of Ravel’s innovations here is how melody and harmony become inseparable. ‘I thought I heard a vague harmony/casting a spell on my sleep/And near me came a murmur/As of songs interrupted by a sad, tender voice’ read lines from Charles Brugnot’s Les deux genies that join Bertrand’s poem in the score.
The central movement of the almost sonata-like triptych is a remarkable exercise in atmosphere. A quote from Goethe’s Faust, ‘What do I see stirring around the gibbet?’ joins Bertrand’s words: is the unsettling sound we hear the north wind, a cricket, a fly, a scarab beetle, a spider? No, it is the bell tolling for a hanged man, whose corpse is on the gallows as the sky turns red in the setting sun. Octave B flats sound throughout the sombre E flat minor of ‘Le Gibet’, a reminder of the inexorable inevitability of death.
‘Scarbo’ takes us further into the night. This final number, in dark G sharp minor, is a portrait of a devilish goblin, who flits in and out of sight, hiding in the darkness, casting shadows in the moonlight. Ravel piles on the challenges: repeated tremolo notes, leaps around the keyboard that have to be perfectly even, lightning-fast passagework that has to be executed at triple ppp, spooky chromatic scales in seconds. But then just as softly as Gaspard de la nuit begins, the music signs off with an insouciant flourish.
Best recordings of Gaspard de la nuit
Martha Argerich (piano)
Deutsche Grammophon 479 4883 (1974)
In an interview in 1978, Martha Argerich explained how she came to learn Gaspard de la nuit. The young Argentine pianist was studying in Vienna with her idol Friedrich Gulda, who was starting to get frustrated with how long she was taking over a Schubert sonata.
As a spur to action, he asked her to prepare Schumann’s Abegg Varations and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit for the next lesson – in just five days’ time. And she did. How did Argerich pull off the feat? ‘I did not find it difficult, because I did not know it was supposed to be,’ she said.
Like a child who can cartwheel without fear, she simply got on and learnt the music in front of her, without worrying that Gaspard de la nuit was meant to involve sleepless nights (or perhaps she was enjoying them – Argerich has talked of how she is nocturnal, liking to practise in the early hours).
The piece has become one of Argerich’s signatures, and there are wonderful versions from throughout her career. You could happily start with the first outing on disc, recorded when she was 18 and recently released in remastered mono sound (Decca 479 5978). It’s silvery, refined, mercurial. Or jump to the latest, live from the 2016 Lugano Festival (Warner Classics 9029583165), a now rare solo recording from Argerich, who in recent decades has preferred to play with other musicians in chamber music and concertos.
It’s a spellbinding listen. In between there’s a volcanic live recording from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 1978. The raw energy she harnesses is truly exhilarating. Ravel, however, might not recognise all of his notes and markings in that performance.
For a recording that keeps a sense of spontaneity but with the bonus of studio refinement, try the 1974 version recorded in Berlin for Deutsche Grammophon. The consummate ease she brings to the keyboard is compelling, freeing her to focus on interpretation.
Ravel purists might object to one or two liberties in tempo, but it’s hard not to be swept up by her vision of the three movements. Her ‘Ondine’ is the most seductive yet vulnerable of all pianists, temperamental too – the fortissimo ‘rapide et brillant’ unleashed near the piece’s end is pure adrenalin. With beautifully balanced textures, ‘Le gibet’ is fateful, resigned, brooding. And her ‘Scarbo’ is as volatile as one could ask for, encompassing a huge dymanic range, breathtaking technique and a strong feeling for this impish figure.
Steven Osborne (piano)
Hyperion CDA 67731-2
If you’re after a Gaspard de la nuit that’s cooler in feel, try Steven Osborne’s immaculate performance, recorded in 2010, that comes as part of his traversal of the complete solo Ravel. The Scottish pianist moves from the subtlest shadings of piano, pianissimo and triple piano, to orchestral-sized fortissimos.
Every movement is crystalline and moving, but his ‘Ondine’ is particularly special. Osborne himself best describes it: ‘I feel just how pure and vulnerable the melody is. It sounds less like a seduction than a genuine appeal for companionship.’
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Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano)
There’s a little hiss in the sound on this 1959 recording, but it’s like looking at the statue of David through an old glass window: the structure and elegance of the subject is not compromised.
The Italian pianist brings a certain nobility to Ravel, his famous marble sound, and an unerring sense of clarity and line. The aura of menace in ‘Le gibet’ and the relentless sound of the bell are especially chilling. Michelangeli recorded Gaspard again, a year later, and that performance has the same virtues.
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
Decca 478 3206
Gaspard de la nuit continues to fascinate the next generation of pianists. Anna Vinnitskaya has recorded a wonderful version; Lucas Debargue’s is wilful but interesting. The British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor tackled the piece for his debut disc, recorded in 2011 when he was 18.
His ‘Ondine’ is beautifully aquatic, and he finds finely-shaded layers of sound in ‘Le gibet’. Perhaps his ‘Scarbo’ is more Romantic, more like a Liszt Rhapsody, than Ravel intended – the scampering outbursts are like rhetorical flourishes – but it is still diabolically good.
Read our reviews of the latest Benjamin Grosvenor recordings
And one to avoid…
Tzimon Barto (piano)
An American pianist generally at home with 20th century repertoire, Tzimon Barto offers in his Gaspard de la nuit, first issued in 2007, about 30 per cent Ravel, 70 per cent Barto. ‘Ondine’ seems to be bogged down in quicksand, an interesting interpretation struggling to break free. The little hesitations he adds in ‘Le Gibet’ soon feel distractingly mannered, while ‘Scarbo’ is mischievous but far too idiosyncratic.
Main image: Getty Images