The Dutch composer Bart Visman (1962) wrote some highly successful works, such as the song cycle Sables, Oxygène for philharmonie zuid and the soprano Barbara Hannigan, and Ces concerts, riches the cuivre for the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. On 6 and 7 February he debuts with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra with an orchestration of ‘Ondine’, the first movement of Ravel’s three-part piano cycle Gaspard de la nuit. This commission forms the upbeat to an integral instrumentation, which will be premiered next season. “I’m made of the same stuff as Ravel.”
Ravel made acclaimed instrumentations of piano pieces by himself and others, but never ventured to ‘Ondine’. Is that intimidating or rather a fine challenge?
‘Intimidating! But also a challenge that I took up with enthusiasm. For a year I dragged along Ravel’s scores wherever I went, studying them thoroughly. I may have been intimidated, but I’m not afraid, his music is close to my heart. He speaks to my condition, as the Quakers say. I myself phrase it like this: I’m made of the same stuff that Ravel is made of.’
‘Thinking of Ravel’s music, what immediately springs to mind is its enormous richness of sound. The way he undresses and dresses a tone is so impressive that you automatically assume it to be very complex. That’s why you are inclined to do too much while orchestrating.’
‘But his approach turned out to be much simpler than I initially assumed. His music is so rich precisely because he works from the core, he only does what is necessary and in the end always chooses the simplest solution. While composing he heard the orchestral sound with his inner ear, and he knew perfectly well how to realise it.’
What made him such a brilliant orchestrator?
‘His orchestral treatment was totally new and definitely not German. In that case flutes, clarinets, horns and violins would all play the melody, but Ravel did exactly the opposite: there are few doublings. He orchestrated meticulously, starting from the balance and using the instruments to their full potential. How loud, how soft, in which register do they play? He found the ideal sound by thinking from colour. Those endless string flageolets, those mysterious murmurs, that low celesta… Unbelievable!’
How did you go about?
‘I generally start from a conception of the colour, too. While orchestrating “Ondine” I initially kept the score of Une Barque sur l’Océan to hand. This is also about water, but is less complex in every respect. Of course I tried to get as close to Ravel as possible, but he worked from the inside out, as it were, from a microscopic sound representation. I’m working from the outside in.’
‘There’s a good reason why he never orchestrated Gaspard de la nuit himself. To pianist Vlado Perlemuter, with whom he worked closely, he said: “The idea behind this piece is that it sounds like the piano score of an orchestral work.” And frankly, there are passages that simply sound best on the piano.’
‘Take the opening, for example. It is very soft and consists of a range of bubblings, foam, waves, tinklings… That was a whole new way of pianistic writing at the time. It has a fast internal movement, but the tempo is nevertheless low, I had to find an orchestral solution for this. – Which proved to be quite a challenge.’
How did you solve this?
‘For a moment I considered including a piano in the orchestra, but that didn’t turn out to be a good idea. In his own orchestrations Ravel uses a lot of natural flageolets, but that’s not possible in the key of C-sharp major. There is only one natural harmonic, which produces a flautando effect. Still, transposing was not an option because Ravel chose this particular key for a reason. In the end I opted for movement in the strings and sustained chords in some wind instruments.’
‘I see this hazy atmosphere as billions of water particles reflecting the whole world. And since the poem in the score is about a water nymph, it simply had to be a flute that blows the melody over all these mysterious rumblings. The funny thing is: concerning the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy we always think of fog, haze, mist, but it’s composed very precisely and in great detail. It’s anything but vague!’
How much Ravel and how much Visman are we going to hear in your orchestration?
‘I hope one hundred percent Ravel, zero percent Visman, but that’s impossible, of course. It’s not my piece, I borrowed it and hope to give it back intact, in new clothes.’
Concerts on 6+7 February, De Doelen, Rotterdam. Also on the programme: Piano Concerto Grieg; Pictures at an Exhibition Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Ravel.
Bart Visman is published by Deuss Music.