Ravel’s Scarbo (Gaspard de la nuit)

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Scarbo on a wall

After meeting with Ondine and picturing the gibbet, it’s time to talk about Scarbo, the last movement of Gaspard de la nuit, work I recorded for my first solo album last month. We all know Scarbo is terrifying from a pianistic point of view. Even if I played it extensively on many different stages, Scarbo still scares me and requires a special attention when included in a recital program.

At the beginning of the XXth century, Balakirev’s Islamey was THE most technically demanding piece ever written for piano. With Scarbo, Ravel decided to transcend Islamey’s virtuosity and write something much more difficult than Balakirev’s work. Well, he won his bet and by far. More than a hundred years after, Scarbo is still the most difficult piece in the piano standard repertoire.

Besides its virtuosity, it also appears to be one of the most beautiful, mysterious, colorful… work ever written. You get it: I love Scarbo and this piece has been fascinating me since I was 14.

Who is Scarbo? Scarbo is a little fiend or goblin, moving fast, disappearing and reappearing, frightening us. Ravel didn’t write a difficult piece for the sake of virtuosity. He wrote it in this way to express the “personnality” of Scarbo: scary, fast, unpredictable. So, you now understand the huge dynamic contrasts, the virtuosity and the constantly changing character of this work. Once again, Ravel perfectly used his talent to render Bertrand’s poem into music.

I wanted to make a caricature of romanticism. Perhaps it got the better of me.” said Maurice Ravel on Scarbo.

Sure it did! And, dear Maurice, with Gaspard de la nuit you certainly wrote one of the most interesting work for piano solo if not THE most interesting one. You clearly broke down the barriers of technical possibilities and opened a new dimension in piano writing and performing.