Hearing Ravel

by Juliana


In a rather desperate attempt to find some music to play with my violinist friend that is actually written for our instruments, rather than arranged, I happened upon the Ravel Sonata for Violin and Cello. The CD booklet for my recording calls the sonata “prickly,” and the piece is certainly a side of Ravel we do not often see. But as we dove into the first measures, I immediately understood that another reason for this piece’s obscurity may well be because of its fiendish difficulty. Our first attempts sadly sounded more like a piece from Schoenberg’s expressionist phase than something a French composer wrote in those “roaring twenties.” We packed up our strings and retreated to the recording (by members of the Borromeo Quartet) for inspiration.

And there it was: light and shimmering, a silken weave of melodic lines in the ethereal upper registers, gossamer and delicate and other-worldly. We sat transfixed. There was nothing of our heavy, ponderous attempts in this music. And those resounding chords in the lowest register of the cello were not solid landings, but rather materialized as unexpected splashes and then were gone. I was reminded of the Radiolab podcast “Shorts: Speedy Beet”  and the discussion with Brooklyn Philharmonic Artistic Director Alan Pierson about Beethoven’s tempos. Contentious as it still is, speeding up Beethoven’s symphonies brings to them a dancing lightness, a quality apparent here in the Ravel as well. How many things in life become a revelation when comprehended at a different speed…