Ravel: Intimate Masterpieces (CD review)

Yolanda Kondonassis, harp, and various other artists. Oberlin Music OC 13004.

The idea for Ravel: Intimate Masterpieces was the brainchild of harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, who is not only a best-selling performer and author but heads the harp department at the Oberlin Conservatory and the Cleveland Institute of Music. Her concept for the album was to record several very personal Ravel chamber works performed by several very personal friends of the Oberlin Conservatory: faculty members, alumni, and resident artists. OK, the thematic relationships here may be tenuous, but the results are solid.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the Oberlin Conservatory, it’s situated amidst Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Founded in 1865, it is the oldest continuously operating music conservatory in the United States, and in 2009 the government awarded it the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given to artists and arts patrons. The Conservatory is releasing the present album on their own label, Oberlin Music, which they founded in 2007. So, yeah, Ms. Kondonassis and her friends know what they’re doing and do it well.

The first of four selections on the program is the Introduction et Allegro (1905) by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The performers involved are Ms. Kondonassis, harp; Alexa Still, flute; Richard Hawkins, clarinet; and the Jupiter String Quartet (Nelson Lee, Meg Freivogel, Liz Freivogel, and Daniel McDonough). In the Introduction et Allegro we get some idea of how precarious Ravel’s position was in the musical world of the early twentieth century. Romanticism was on its way out; modernism, with all the experimentation that implies, was the coming rage. Ravel sort of straddled the line in 1905, producing a lushly Romantic, harmonic piece that clearly reflected more of the Debussy imagery of the previous century than the coming rhythms of the Stravinsky age.

Anyway, the Introduction et Allegro is lovely in every regard, the players ensuring that it floats and glides effortlessly. Needless to say, Ms. Kondonassis's harp is the star of the show, and she demonstrates with her subtly ethereal finger work why she is one of the world's leading harpists.

Next up is the String Quartet in F major, a four-movement affair that Ravel wrote in 1903, performed by the Jupiter String Quartet. The composer introduces his two primary melodies in the first movement and develops them further throughout the work. The music is very sensual in the manner and style of Debussy, with the Jupiter players giving it a heartfelt yet never overly emotional interpretation. It has a light, airy feeling to it, alway precisely articulated, with no one player dominating. The pizzicato strings of the second movement seem quite playful before falling into line with the work's more serious moods. The Jupiters display an energy and vitality in the final movement that brings the piece to a thrilling, agitated, and eventually jubilant close.

After that we find Chansons madecasses, a set of three songs Ravel wrote in 1925-26, becoming among his more controversial works for their apparent disparagement of his country's push for nationalism and ethnic solidarity. Performing the songs are Ellie Dehn, soprano; Alexa Still, flute and piccolo; Daniel McDonough, cello; and Spencer Myer, piano. Together, they produce nuanced interpretations, Ms. Dehn's voice delicate and expressive, the accompaniment beguiling.

The program wraps up with Ravel's Cinq melodies populaires grecques, performed by Ms. Dehns and Ms. Kondonassis. These five songs helped to solidify the composer's reputation for "aloofness," of being distant and, especially, apart from his countrymen and fellow musicians. Nevertheless, the apparent "inexpressivity" that many critics found in the music doesn't interfere with Dehns and Kondonassis providing exquisitely beautiful realizations of the folklike tunes. They conclude the album on a most positive and endearing note.

Recorded, mixed, and mastered by audio engineer Paul Eachus, he and producer David H. Stull made the album at Clonick Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio in January 2013. It's distanced just enough not to be right in one’s face yet close enough to provide a good deal of inner detail. Each instrument sounds clearly defined and well separated from the others, while combining realistically. There's a warm ambient glow around the notes that makes the whole affair sound quite comfortable and, well, intimate.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa