Georgian classical pianist Khatia Buniatishvili performs Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, poème chorégraphique pour orchestre (a choreographic poem for orchestra). Recorded on September 30, 2014, in London
Maurice Ravel’s La Valse
Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse” is a captivating orchestral piece that embodies the transformation of the Viennese waltz from a symbol of imperial elegance to a more complex, even tumultuous, representation that hints at the chaos and destruction of post-World War I Europe.
The work was written between 1919 and 1920 and premiered in Paris on December 12, 1920. It was originally written for orchestra, but later, Ravel transcribed it for two pianos. This version was first performed publicly by the composer himself and the Italian composer, pianist, and conductor Alfredo Casella (25 July 1883 – 5 March 1947).
Ravel initially conceived it as a tribute to the waltz form and to Johann Strauss II, the Waltz King. However, the outcome is a work that transcends mere homage, encapsulating both the splendor and the eventual disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra’s Dennis Bade says:
“The war had changed Ravel’s outlook profoundly, and ‘The Waltz’ now had a demonic and explosive conclusion, in which the savagery of the scene is captured in some of Ravel’s most extraordinary orchestration.”
Ravel also transcribed this work for one piano. Solo piano transcription is infrequently performed due to its difficulty.
Ravel described La Valse with the following preface to the score:
“Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter A an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855.”
The piano transcription of “La Valse” plays a crucial role in bringing this orchestral masterpiece into the realm of solo piano performance. Ravel himself transcribed the piece for piano solo, ensuring that the transcription retained the essence and complexity of the orchestral version. This adaptation for piano not only makes the work accessible to a different set of performers and audiences but also showcases Ravel’s skill in effectively translating the rich textures and dynamic contrasts of the orchestra to the piano.
In the piano version, the performer is tasked with capturing the swirling, intoxicating character of the waltz, along with its gradual descent into chaos. The piece begins with a mysterious, almost ominous introduction, where the waltz theme is hinted at but not yet fully revealed. As the piece progresses, the music becomes more animated and grandiose, with the waltz theme emerging in various guises, and growing in intensity. The climax is both magnificent and unsettling, as the music reaches a frenzied state before collapsing upon itself.
The piano transcription of “La Valse” is celebrated for its technical demands and interpretative challenges. It requires a pianist with not only virtuosic skill but also deep musicality to navigate its shifting moods and colors. The work is a testament to Ravel’s genius in orchestration and his ability to evoke a vivid, almost visual experience through music. It’s a piece that captures the essence of an era, reflecting both its beauty and its impending doom.
Performing “La Valse” on the piano offers an intimate yet expansive experience, allowing listeners to engage with Ravel’s masterful composition on a different but equally profound level. The transcription stands as a significant contribution to the piano repertoire, celebrated for its emotional depth, technical challenges, and historical resonance.
- La Valse on Wikipedia
- “La Valse, Maurice Ravel” on the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra’s official website
- La valse, M.72 (Ravel, Maurice) on the International Music Score Library Project website