Unravelling Ravel

As the LSO prepares to present a series of four concerts featuring the works of Maurice Ravel, the conductor Andre Previn explains why the composer deserves to be known as more than just the man who wrote the music for Torvill & Dean
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When Andre Previn mounts the rostrum to conduct Ravel's Mother Goose ballet at the start of the LSO's Barbican series Ravel: Through the Looking-Glass this June, the air will fill with aural stardust. I know. I've heard him do it. But then Previn is himself an expert storyteller. His latest compositions include an opera based on A Streetcar Named Desire and some songs about the life of Billy the Kid. Barbara Bonney had told him that she is distantly related to Billy, and Previn's imagination took flight: he tracked down some letters from Billy's lover (a whore whose clients included both the Kid and his eventual killer) and set them to music. Such is the man's creative versatility.

Previn's repertoire is immensely catholic, though Mozart is his musical "home". He once programmed Mozart's first and last symphonies in the same evening and was flabbergasted when a critic had the temerity to rubbish the eight-year-old's first symphonic essay. "What kind of children does he have?" chuckled Previn. "My god, Mozart was an absolute miracle, there's never been anyone like him since." Ravel is another miracle, although Previn's initial experience of his music was somewhat inauspicious. `The first thing I ever heard put me off, and that was Bolero. It's a wonderful piece, I just don't want to conduct it very much!"

The Barbican series (four concerts in all, including a chamber evening, with some contemporaneous recordings planned for DG) will include the complete Mother Goose ballet and the second Daphnis et Chloe suite. But why only a suite? Is that because Previn doesn't think the complete ballet score "works" in the concert hall? "Definitely not. I think it's an absolute masterpiece, the best thing Ravel ever wrote. The problem is that in terms of length, it was a little more difficult to place - because we wanted to do all the other things as well.

"Daphnis is irresistible, and you can approach it on any level. It is the most sophisticated score, certainly the most phenomenally orchestrated ballet that I can think of - and it is overwhelmingly sensuous. Also, if you don't want to get too deeply into it, the complete ballet works on a purely visceral level. You know, Ravel has been accused of being a miniaturist and all that, but if you listen to the whole of Daphnis..." A shake of the head signals a love beyond words.

Previn's executive involvement with Ravel extends to the solo piano works, the Piano Trio - which he will be playing with members of the LSO Chamber Ensemble in the concluding concert of the June series ("It's damned hard but wonderful to play") - and the operas, especially that gorgeous parable of childhood disobedience, L'Enfant et les sortileges, a work that habitually reduces me to tears. "Absolutely," exclaims Previn in obvious agreement, "though it's a different sort of `being brought to tears' to, let's say, the last scene of Strauss's Capriccio. That also brings me very close to weeping, but it manipulates a different kind of nerve-end - one that's much more worldly, and much less innocent."

Ravel's other "single disc" opera is the Hispanic happy-hour sex-comedy L'Heure Espagnole; Previn's Barbican performance will star the US mezzo- soprano Frederica Von Stade as Concepcion, the Toledo clockmaker's wife in desperate need of a man to help her unwind. "Von Stade has the same familiarity with French that I happen to have with German," says the conductor, who, despite his French-sounding name, American upbringing and long-standing British connection, was in fact born a German. "I talked to her yesterday and she said, `This piece is a real hoot; there are so many wonderful jokes!' Of course, you wouldn't necessarily know that unless you speak the language perfectly, and I know she'll be stunning."

So, are the operas the best point to embark on the Ravelian journey, or is there any other piece or group of pieces that Previn would recommend as a starting-point? "No, I wouldn't approach it that way," he says. "I would much rather think in terms of an overview. And I also think that the idea of performing Ravel with the LSO is really perfect. Here was a man who was in love with the symphony orchestra, who knew, down to the last demisemiquaver, how to write for it. And when you have an orchestra that adores playing the virtuoso (and never mind my interpretation), then the combination of that composer with that particular orchestra ought to be a real treat."

Many music lovers will already "sense" Ravel in the works of other composers: he was, after all, a major influence on many of his contemporaries - Vaughan Williams, for example, who studied briefly with the French composer in Paris. As a leading VW exponent, does Previn exploit that influence in his interpretations, especially in the Third and Fifth Symphonies? "I can't discuss that, because I don't really know," he says. "My favourite Vaughan Williams symphonies are the Fifth and, yes, the Third. You see, I lived out in the English countryside for 21 years and it is that experience rather than a knowledge of Ravel that informs my interpretations. It's very archetypal and so beautiful, and it always floors me when people can hear the Fifth Symphony and not `get' it. I have played those pieces and other works by Vaughan Williams all over the world; it's a kind of minor mission in life for me. When listeners come to it for the first time, they are either instantly enthusiastic (and I mean to an extraordinary point - you know, `Where can I get the record? Is the score available?' etc), or they say - more or less - `Are you serious? Nothing goes on; nothing happens!' "

When Previn brought the Tallis Fantasy to Vienna the year before last, the city's Philharmonic was playing it for the very first time. "They loved it," he tells me. "One of the most renowned people in the orchestra asked me whether `he' had written anything else. `Who?' I replied. `Vaughan Williams,' he said. And I said, `Yeah! Nine symphonies for openers'. He stood back. `It's marvellous! You must play one.' "

If Ravel's influence on Vaughan Williams is relatively subtle, his presence on the post-war light music scene is surely beyond question. Would Previn agree? "I honestly never thought of it that way," he replies candidly. "I know that the simpler of his harmonic progressions have found their way into the jazz, even into the pop field - but really these people are not even aware of it. They don't know that they're cribbing from Ravel. When I say `pop', I don't mean `rock'; I mean `classic' popular music. A great deal of commercial music and movie scores couldn't exist without Ravel. It's always interesting that, when you hear a good Ravel imitation, and you go back to the real thing, there are miles between them. All the composers of the early 20th century who wrote `glamorously' (a stupid word, I know) for the orchestra - I mean like Strauss, like Ravel - were taken over wholesale by film scores. They can imitate that which is inimitable, and that's the least part."

Might it be, then, that film scores could, under propitious circumstances, lead listeners on to "regular" symphonic music?

"You mean, if somebody loves Star Wars, they're going to love Ein Heidenleben?"

So, is that such a mad idea?

"I don't think it's a mad idea. I think it's sad! And it's probably quite true. I usually object to that line of discussion, but I recall that there was a pop hit some years back of the main tune from Mozart's 40th Symphony. The argument then was that more people would actually go out and explore the real thing. I don't believe that. After all, if you were to go into the Louvre - this is a really far-fetched idea, I know - and draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa, you'd be arrested. They certainly wouldn't excuse you with, `Never mind - it's going to make more people look at it'! But I suppose it is possible that listeners will hear some movie scores and not be put off by Strauss and Ravel. Still, I don't believe that, even in these days of economic strife, good music needs any extraneous help. I think we're doing all right"n