Perhaps the characteristic that accounts most for the sultry eroticism in Ravel's "Bolero" is its unashamedness in pursuit of that goal - and its unremitting commitment to this rather, some would say, gross esthetic image.
Musical erotism wasn't exactly a new concept when "Bolero" hit the public in 1928 - Monterverdi and Wagner being among the previous and loss blatant transgressors - but no one before "Bolero" had ever composed so grapically about to put it blutly sex.
Ravel never really-admitted it, but by implication he allowed it to be unmistakable. Consider the subject matter of the ballet to which it was set - a Spanish woman dancing increasingly frienziely on a trestle table surrounded by men. And compare this to his cop-out description of "Bolero" as "consisting wholly of orchestral tissue without music - of one very long gradual crescendo."
The work was an extraordinary popular success. Its American premiere, under Toscanini at Carnegie Hall in 1927, was described as a "bombsbell." But one wonders how many of those matinee ladies who were thrilled knew exactly what the thrill was all about.
The key to "Bolera" is its stark simplicity - without simplemindedness. It consists of three repetitions, with increasingly complex ochestration, of two highly syncopated 16-bar phrases, topped by a short violently disonant conclusion.
Edward Downess, in his New York Philharmonic program notes, rejects the theory held among some that "Bolero" is a kind of throaway music, and describes it, I think correctly as "a minor miracle, inexplicably and irresistibly exciting on first hearing."
Given its popularity, "Bolero" receives surprisingly few perfomances that really do it justice. It may not be a difficult work to interpret, but the control of rhythm and timbre that it takes for full effect are pretty staggering (one would have loved to bear Toscanini, who never recorded it; even though Ravel complained that Toscanini played it too past).
One such performance comes now on records, from what might at first seem an unlikely source - the Germanically oriented Chicago Symphony under Sir George Solti (London 7033). But, come to think of it, one of the qualities that sometimes seem bothersome in the glittering work of this orchestra and this conductor - a sort of Prussian rigidity that can acompany the precision of ensemble and perfection of pitch - is exactly right for "Bolero." Solti's pace is fast, and Ravel probably would have disapproved. But this is not a work, but is a powerful one. The same may be said of this performance.
Then, after strutting smartly through "Bolero," Solti on the same record turns around and muddles the whole rigidity premise of this review by giving us notably broad, inflected performances of Debussy's two masterpieces of French impressionism "La Mer" and the "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." I would not say either performance is necessarily the best available but both are top noth. Listen, for instance, to the easy rubato of the flute in "Faun" and to the clarity of the simultaneous rhythms in "La Mer." If there is any complaint it might be that the timbres are less delicate and sensuous than you might get from say, the Boston Symphony.
The Debussy porformances remind me most of Szell's but with better sound - and that's not such a bad thing to have said about a conductor's perfomances.