The various observances of the centenary of the birth of Maurice Ravel two years ago left us several permanent benefactions. One is Arbie Orenstein's biographical study of the composer and his music ("Ravel: Man and Musician," Columbia University Press), a comprehensive work with special reference value. Another is the late Jean Martinon's Ravel cycle for Angel, which includes the first recording of the Sheherazade Overture, Ravel's very first orchestral composition, unheard for more than 70 years (Ravel had suppressed the work after conducting a single performance in 1899). The catalog of works in Orenstein's book indicated that there were still earlier Ravel works that went unperformed during the composer's lifetime, and no fewer than six have just been added to his discography.
The Musical Heritage Society record on which these appear (MHS 3581, available from MHS, Oakhurse; N.J. 07755, for $3.50 plus 95 cents shipping) is a delayed byproduct of a centenary recital organized by Orenstein and given in 1975 by him and his faculty colleagues at Queens College. The program included the world premiere performances recorded here and splendidly documented by Orenstein's annotations and text-translations.
Side I begins with Orenstein's performance of the "Serenade grotesque," Ravel's first piano composition. It is perhaps not an "important" work, but surely an instriguing one, with its virtual preechoes of the composer's mature style amid half-echoes of his beloved Chabrier, and Orenstein puts it across well.
On the same side he accompanies soprano Sheila Schonbrun in four songs. The charming "Ballade de Ia Reine Morte d'Aimer" ("Ballad of the Queen Who Died of Love") may antedate the Serenade; the "Chanson du rouet" and "Si morne!" are both dated 1898. Schonbrun's French is a little shaky and her upper range is quite uncomfortable, but, while one is eager to hear these songs more adequately sung, one is grateful for the opportunity to hear them at all. No complaints about the performance of the "Chanson ecossaise," a setting of Robert Burns's "The Banks o' Doon" reconstructed from a sketch Ravel made in 1910 when he submitted the piece with six others on folk material in a competition held in Moscow (four of those songs won prizes and were published as the "Chants populaires").
On side 2 is the one-movement Sonata for violin and piano composed in 1987, given a convincing premiere by violinist Gerald Tarack and pianist Leon Pommers. As Orenstein points out, this early sonata has no relation to the familiar one of 1923-27, but its opening does seem to prefigure that of the Piano Trio of 1914.
Preceding the Sonata on the disc are some previously recorded keyboard works that are by no mans overexposed. Donald Pirone and Timothy Sullivan perform the "Sites auricularies" (comprising the Habanera and "Entre cloches") for two pianos, and are joined by Jocelyn Rothgarber in the brief Frontispice, which calls for two pianos, five hands. Both works are played with more dash by the bothers Kontarsky (without the fifth hand) in their spectacular set of piano duos by Debussy and Ravel (DG 2707.0972), but as a makeweight in a package of premieres the MHS performances are easy to take.
The sound is first-rate throughout both sides, but I wish the applause had been excised. All in all, an absorbing and valuable musical document.