Valses Nobles et Sentimentales is undoubtedly one of Ravel’s most magnificent solo piano works, and after an inauspicious start it has steadily grown in popularity over the course of the last century, both in its original form and subsequent orchestration.
Though two of the easier movements have appeared in the UK Grade 7 and 8 syllabus, the complete work comprises eight short movements which present considerable challenge, both technically and musically.
Those at diploma level or beyond who are preparing to perform it will want to be diligent in sourcing an edition which combines an accurate musical text with a presentation that is equally suited to study and performance. There are several to choose from.
I have previously relied on the excellent Edition Peters urtext (edited by Roger Nichols, 2008). There’s also a more recent edition from Bärenreiter (2015). In this review however, I will be considering a superb new publication from Durand in their Musique française series.
Durand published the first edition in 1911; this new publication updates their 1921 reprint, giving that authorised musical text a spacious modern engraving, and including an introduction with performing notes by eminent French musicologist Edmond Lemaître. Read on to find out more…
Following the successes of Gaspard de la nuit (1909) and Ma mère l’oye (1910), Ravel sought a new style for his 1911 composition, stating,
“The title Valses nobles et sentimentales indicated my intention to compose a series of waltzes, following the example of Schubert. The virtuosity that formed the basis of Gaspard de la nuit is succeeded by a writing that is plainly more clarified, that toughens the harmony and accentuates the contours of the music.”
The sumptuous chromaticism and atmospheric pianism of Gaspard is certainly replaced here by a more vivacious emphasis on rhythm and harmonic dissonance. Composed midway through the twelve-year gestation of La Valse, it surely anticipates that later masterpiece.
At it’s first performance, Valses nobles et sentimentales was presented anonymously, and many in the audience did not recognise it as the music of the Ravel they knew. The composer later recalled that at that event, a friend sat in close proximity to him exclaimed,
“But who is the idiot who composed this?”
The composer Charles Kœchlin was also present and noted,
“A huge majority judged from the very first chords, that it was a challenging mass of dissonances and wrong notes. Laughter erupted, so loudly and vociferously, that the pianist could hardly be heard, even in the fortissimo passages.”
Hardly the premiere any composer hopes for!
And here are those very first chords, indeed the complete work, so that you can judge for yourself whether to laugh or marvel:
The recording above features the composer himself (playing on the Welte-Mignon Reproducing Piano) and was made in 1913, by which time he had also orchestrated the Valses nobles et sentimetales as a ballet, to greater acclaim.
There have subsequently been many stunning recordings of this work, but the composer’s own bears a unique authority; those wanting to get as close as possible to Ravel’s intentions will want to refer to his interpretation alongside the score itself.
And with that thought, let’s consider the refreshed publication of the latter from Durand.
For much of the work’s history, Durand’s edition of Valses nobles et sentimentales was the only version available, but the expiry of copyright has enabled other publishers to examine the work in the light of fresh research. We might assume that these more recent editions reveal important insights, but they also risk the danger of relying too heavily on disputed and secondary texts in the pursuit of novelty.
As it turns out, comparing the Edition Peters score with the Durand one reveals that for the performer there is actually very little to separate the two. I do not have the Bärenreiter for further comparison, but note that unlike the others it includes fingering (by concert pianist Alexandre Tharaud, no less), and I think this rather points to the distinguishing features of each edition: the added bonus materials included to support performers.
When preparing Valses nobles et sentimentales, editors are blessed with the first hand accounts of pianists who played the piece for Ravel and received his direct input. These prove to be far more revealing than minor textual clarifications, and the most decisive come from the pianist Vlado Perlemuter, who received copious advice from the composer, which he later transcribed in his book Ravel d’après Ravel.
Edmond Lemaître’s superb Lesson in interpretation from Ravel, which is featured in his Introduction to the new Durand edition, crystallises Perlemuter’s insights to provide in-depth interpretative advice for each movement of the Valses nobles et sentimentales, supplemented further by the recollections of Marguerite Long, another pianist who gained Ravel’s personal input.
What of the score itself?
Printed with superb clarity on cream paper, I personally found the new edition from Durand easier to read than my older Edition Peters copy. And while it generally follows the same pagination, the Durand version neatly avoids a couple of awkward page turns, and benefits from a presentation that facilitates a clear sense of the work’s structural sections.
The new edition from Durand is thus an easy recommendation. Offering an established and authoritative text from Ravel’s chosen publisher, beautifully presented, and accompanied by excellent supporting content, it is undoubtedly a winning choice.
Not only so, but it costs less than the alternatives I have mentioned. Lemaître’s superbly written Lesson in interpretation from Ravel is worth the price of the book in itself, and those approaching the work will not want to be without it.
The publishers themselves say of their “Musiques française” series,
“Musiques française is a series designed for students and teachers as well as professionals. These editions offer masterworks in French music, with performance suggestions and historical and stylistic commentary any noted scholars.”
With its vivid presentation, and a refreshing approachability that would have undoubtedly appealed to the composer, this new edition of the Valses nobles et sentimentales perfectly hits the spot, offering an accessible and academically informed introduction to this masterpiece which can be very highly recommended.
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