“YVES RAMETTE, Cascading into Reverie: Works for Piano & Works for Orchestra” = Variations on a Theme of Honegger; Naïades; Pastels; Fontaines et Cascades; Sonate; Humoresque; Prélude, Fugue et Postlude; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 5, “Hymn for Life” – Eric Himy, p./ Czech Radio Sym. Orch./ Vladimir Válek / Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orch./ Jan Stulen – Navona NV5910 (2 CDs), 69:00, 57:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:
Even musical Francophiles may not be familiar with the name of Yves Ramette (1921–2012). The composer studied at the Conservatoire National de Musique and at the École Normal de Musique de Paris, where he studied composition with Arthur Honegger. He also took courses in violin, piano, organ, and conducting, later serving as maître de chapelle and organist at Église Saint-Ferdinand-de-Ternes in Paris as well as founder-director of a mixed choir named Vox Ardens, He seems to have resigned from both positions by 1990 and devoted his last years to composition.
Given the professional positions he held in his life, a complete picture of Ramette as composer would include works for organ and for chorus; however, his catalog (available on Ramette’s website) indicates that he composed only a handful of pieces for each of those media, the bulk of the catalog being devoted to piano and chamber works. It’s also interesting to note that his orchestral compositions seem to have been written in the ‘40s and ‘50s; on the other hand, the piano works on the current program all come from the ‘80s and ‘90s and so represent a different—one assumes, more advanced—esthetic. At least I very much favor them over the pieces for orchestra.
In notes to the pieces on the program, Ramette repeatedly remarks that emotion is at the center of his esthetic. Music, according to the composer, is “the language of the soul” and “a message of the heart.” If that’s true, then my objection to most of Ramette’s orchestral music is that the range of emotion is rather limited. Take for example the Third Symphony (1948–49). In three parts played without pause—Adagio, Allegro, and Adagio—the work’s range of emotions represents for the composer “sadness, revolt and calming.” The Allegro “revolt” section in sonata form may embrace a greater degree of agitation, but musically it is presented through the same means as the “sadness” of the first movement: the minor key predominates, and a spiky chromaticism adds to the dark tension. There is mostly shade, very little light, and this lack of contrast becomes oppressive in the course of the work—in all three works, in fact. One problem with the Third Symphony is its scoring for large string orchestra. Given the generally dark harmonic language of the piece, the limited coloration in the scoring underscores the overall drabness of the symphony.
More successful is the Fifth Symphony (1956), dedicated to Ramette’s teacher Arthur Honegger. At least this symphony is scored, very skillfully, for full symphony orchestra and embraces more in the way of contrast among its sections. The symphony is cast in three movements, the second (“Dreams and Visions”) and third (“Ascent to the Light”) played without pause. The opening movement, “The Struggle,” reminds me of the first movement of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, where there seems to be a similar battle against unspecified forces. The second movement, by contrast, is more skittish and is about as playful as Ramette ever becomes; it seems to correspond to the usual symphonic scherzo. If that’s so, the last movement enfolds both slow movement and finale, the finale rather brief, the “Ascent to the Light” being more about the ascent than about the light. The turn to the major key on the last chord of the movement seems just about the only indication that the light has dawned. Maybe the title led me to expect something slightly different, but apparently for Ramette, enlightenment in the modern era is a hard-won victory.
Despite the fact that this symphony was dedicated to Honegger, I hear little direct influence of the Swiss composer’s style in Ramette’s orchestral music. Indeed, I think Ramette could have taken some pointers from Honegger on balancing chiaroscuro effects, and a good place to turn would be Honegger’s Second Symphony for strings and obbligato trumpet. Be that as it may, I think Ramette’s Variations sur un thème d’Honegger for solo piano is a more appealing tribute to his teacher. The variations are expertly written and more successfully convey a series of contrasting emotions, which is Ramette’s object here. The ending surprises in its quiet reflectiveness.
Ramette is probably justified in stating that the three seemingly descriptive pieces Naïades, Pastels, and Fontaines et Cascades are actually “not descriptive or Impressionist works.” I don’t know whether I accept his bland assertion that they “interpret emotions experienced while taking a walk or when one is faced with the immense beauty of nature.” And while I accept that these pieces are not Impressionist in the same way that Debussy’s or Respighi’s music about, say, fountains is, I think all these piano pieces show Ramette’s indebtedness to French Impressionism—perhaps even to Franckian chromatisicm—as well as to later developments in French music. Ramette’s harmonic and tonal language certainly take something from Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel; but the influences seem to extend as well to Messiaen and possibly André Jolivet, both of whom celebrated the emotions in their compositions. There’s something here of the hyper-emphatic, ecstatic, almost out-of-bounds quality that characterizes Messiaen at his most emotive. There’s even a sort of tintinnabulatory quality about Ramette that also informs Messiaen, with his frequent references to gamelan and other Far Eastern musical sounds. But in his piano music, as in his orchestral music, Yves Ramette speaks in his own unique voice; I find the voice heard in his piano music the more magisterial, however.
He has a very fine advocate in Juilliard-trained pianist Eric Himy, whom Ramette got to know in the 1990s. That Himy had worked closely with Ramette is obvious in his performances, which seem to deliver all, in terms of technique and emotive energy, a composer could wish for. The pianist’s playing is captured in very good sound as well, at least in this remastering by PARMA Recordings. PARMA has also done right by the orchestral offerings, the earliest (Symphony No. 5) having been set down as long ago as 1990.
Not essential listening then, but intelligent, often appealing music presented with style.