Video Pick of the Week: Katalin Koltai Plays Ravel’s Haunting ‘Oiseaux tristes’

Pieces by the great French composer Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) seem to be turning up more and more in the guitar repertoire, and why not—his work is profound and emotional, drawing on many influences and styles, at times strikingly modern. This week’s Pick is a solo guitar version (the first I’ve heard) of Ravel’s Oiseaux triste (“sad birds”), which is one of five movements in a solo piano work dating back to 1904–05 called Miroirs (“mirrors”). Around 1900, Ravel had joined a loose group of progressive artistes known as Les Apaches, and each of the movements of Miroirs is dedicated to one of its members—in the case of Oiseaux triste, the dedicatee was Catalonian pianist Ricardo Viñes, who noted of his friend Ravel during this period that he was “dreaming of a kind of music whose form was so free that it would sound improvised, of works which would seem to have been torn out of a sketchbook.” Specific to this piece, one of Ravel’s music school classmates (quoted by Mike Springer on recalled, “He was staying with friends and one morning he heard a blackbird whistling a tune and was enchanted by its elegant, melancholy arabesque. He had merely to transcribe this tune accurately, without changing a note, to produce the limpid, poetic piece, which spiritualizes the nostalgic call of this French brother of the Forest Bird in [the Wagner opera] Siegfried.” Ravel himself wrote, “Oiseaux tristes is the most typical of my way of thinking. It evokes birds lost in the oppressiveness of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer.”

This guitar transcription and performance are by the fine Hungarian guitarist Katalin Koltai, who besides being a solo player, is one-half of the Dialogue Duo with flautist Noémi Győri; together they also established the Classical Flute and Guitar Project, transcribing and developing repertoire for that combination.  (You can watch them play a piece by Mozart here.) Oiseaux triste is a darkly beautiful piece, and Koltai has managed to imbue it with some uniquely guitaristic personality, using harmonics and other techniques to bring it effectively onto the instrument.  —Blair Jackson




As a bonus, here’s Russian pianist Sergei Kuznetsov playing the piece as Ravel wrote it. It’s interesting and instructive to see the sorts of choices and changes required to adapt a work from piano to guitar. We’ll be addressing that subject in greater depth in the Spring 2018 issue of Classical Guitar, out in February: