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Music Review: Windscape – Maurice Ravel: Transcriptions For Wind Quintet

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Joseph-Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) is often discussed in the same breath as his contemporary Claude Debussy. Born some thirteen years after Debussy, but also in France, Ravel often suffered unduly from critics eager to promote the work of the elder composer.

In many ways it was only when Debussy died in 1918 that the value of Ravel’s work was fully acknowledged. It was at this point that he finally adopted the mantle of the greatest living French composer.

In truth, the two composers were very different from each other. Debussy was always something of a radical, his work leading to the creation of impressionistic composition. Ravel whilst employing impressionistic techniques was more a classicist in his overall approach.

One of his most well known works that included a greater use of impressionistic, and perhaps more simplistic styling, "Ma Mere L’Oye", can be found on this release from MSR Classics (MS 1130).

Many of his contemporary French composers such as Saint-Saens and Massenet often drew their inspirations from Germany, and Wagner in particular. It was Debussy, and later Ravel who led the way towards the creation of this French school of composition, a move that can be seen, in part, as something of a reaction against Wagnerism.

Whilst Debussy would often seek to abandon formality towards ambiguity, Ravel would adopt a more structured approach to his compositions. A superb orchestrator, he had the ability to combine both the contemporary alongside the classical.

However a criticism that is often leveled at Ravel is that he could be guilty of constantly remodeling, of trying to perfect the already perfect. It was a trait that bordered on near obsession.

This collection, performed by Windscape, opens with "Vales Nobles Et Sentimentales", transcribed here by bassoonist Frank Morelli . The informative album notes advise that Ravel said of this piece, ‘the title, sufficiently indicates my intention of writing a series of waltzes in imitation of Schubert. The seventh waltz seems to me to be the most characteristic.’

Windscape was formed in 1994 by five renowned first chair woodwind soloists. Constantly evolving, it has toured extensively across the USA, Canada, and as far afield as Asia. As Artists-In-Residence at the Manhattan School of Music it is notable for its innovative programs amid instrumental virtuosity and creative energy.

The current members of Windscape are:Tara Helen O’Connor (flute and piccolo), Randall Wolfgang (oboe and English horn), Alan R. Kay (clarinet), David Jolley (horn), and Frank Morelli (bassoon).

The second piece performed in this set is the exotic "La Flute Enchante", taken from Sheherazade. The vocal line is shared between oboe and clarinet, whilst the remainder of the soloists perform the harmonies originally assigned to the string section. The flute conjures up emotive images of the east. The result is a sensual piece set within an arabesque atmosphere of absent love.

The ever invigorating, and elegant "Le Tombeau De Couperin" appears next. It is a piece of six sections, written by Ravel as a tribute to eighteenth century French music rather than solely for Francois Couperin himself. It was also intended as a tribute to the dead of the Great War during which Ravel took on the role of ambulance driver.

The transcriptions by the members of Windscape stay loyal to the essence of Ravel’s instrumentation and orchestration of his work. The pieces chosen are lovingly and expertly performed whilst adding a new dimension in trademark Windscape style.

The brief "Piece En Forme De Habanera", originally constructed for voice and piano, has the vocal section transcribed to oboe.

For the composition of "Ma Mere L’Oye" Ravel drew inspiration from children's stories written by French authors. The title itself was taken from Charles Perrault’s, Mother Goose Tales, which had been written in 1697. Intending to evoke the poetry of childhood, he succeeded in creating one of his most enduring pieces.

Opening with the beautiful "Pavane de la Belle au Bois Dormant", it gives way to "Petit Poucet". However one of the highlights of this recording is to follow within the section "Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bete" (or "Beauty and the Beast"). For this piece the bassoon takes on the voice of the beast to superb effect.

The album appears with a perfectly chosen cover depicting Monet’s Wild Poppies Near Argenteuil. The sound and the performances are all exemplary. The album’s major achievement is that Windscape, in true innovative style, capture the essence of the original despite being performed by the smaller ensemble.
                                                                                                                         Please follow the links above to the artists website. MSR Classics can be found here by visiting their official site.

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