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Ravel, Ma mere l’Oye and L’enfant et les sortilèges: Soloists, Berlin Radio Choir, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 27.9.2008 (MB)

Annick Massis (soprano)
Mojca Erdmann (soprano)
Magdalena Kožena (mezzo-soprano)
Sophie Koch (mezzo-soprano)
Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto)
Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor)
François Le Roux (baritone)
José van Dam (baritone)

Berlin Radio Choir (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle gave us two evocations of childhood from Ravel. Both of course are highly sophisticated evocations of childhood, more likely to appeal to adults than to children; they are not ‘music for children’. Yet, in their loving mixture of wonder and nostalgia, they are if anything all the more enchanting for adults – not least when performed as here.

For all the talk of ‘internationalisation’, the Berlin Philharmonic initially sounded quite German, ‘old-world’ even, in the depths of its string tone. This became less so as Ma mere l’Oye continued but it was good to hear that ‘tradition’ had not been lost. I do not mean that Ravel therefore sounded like Brahms, merely that a certain orchestral characteristic, which one more readily associates with the Staatskapelle Berlin across town, has not been entirely lost. Moreover, the orchestra certainly lacked nothing in agility; there was no ‘trade-off’ in this sense. Rattle offered a moulded reading, which I can imagine some finding a little too much so, but this is highly ‘artificial’ music. (When someone complained about the artificiality of his music, Ravel asked whether it had not occurred to his accuser that the composer might be an artificial person.) There were occasions, such as the second movement, when I should not have minded a little more room for the music to dance more freely and simply, but these occasions were relatively few. Balanced against that should be the orchestral detail and virtuosity to which we were treated. The various solos were all taken impeccably. It is perhaps unfair to single any out but I shall nevertheless do so in the cases of Albrecht Meyer’s beguiling oboe, Emmanuel Pahud’s ravishing flute, and leader Toru Yosunaga’s æthereal yet Romantic solo in ‘Les entretiens de la Belle et la Bête’. Rattle ensured that the added-note harmonies in that waltz-movement were truly made to impart their harmonic worth. ‘Laideronnette’ was characterful without being over-played: colourful in terms of orchestration and harmony but with a certain, most apt restraint. The final movement, ‘Le jardin féerique’ was a veritable garden of delights, which also displayed a winning, almost Elgarian nobility. Its apotheosis was characterised by great warmth, if perhaps a little too much boisterousness. If overall, I missed the X-ray precision of Boulez in this music, there are other ways to perform it. There was rightly none of the vagueness that lies at the heart of Debussy’s music but lacking in that of Ravel, even when it most closely approaches ‘impressionism’. Sometimes I wondered whether there was a little too much languor to Rattle’s reading but on the whole this was a fine account.

I had not even minor reservations when it came to the one-act opera, L’enfant et les sortilèges. The orchestra sounded if anything still finer and Rattle resisted any temptation to linger or to underline. Ravel’s music in any many senses requires loving yet clear-eyed presentation rather than ‘interpretation’ as such, at least when it comes to the orchestral part of the score; this is what it received. The still-greater clarity of later Ravel shone through, as did its jazzy inflections. There was a clear shift when the outside world of the garden took over, even perhaps a foreshadowing of Bartókian ‘night music’.  The Berlin Philharmonic was beyond reproach both in orchestral blend and once again in its manifold solo opportunities. I cannot but mention Pahud once again but equally impressive were many other instrumentalists, including the solo double-bassist, pianist, and the player of the luthéal (if that is what it was; whatever the instrument listed in the programme as a ‘prepared piano’ may actually have been, it certainly sounded ‘right’). The vocal parts were shared between a fine team of soloists. Magdalena Kožena was fully occupied as the Child. Her finely detailed reading displayed an appropriate air of the tomboy. Petulance gradually metamorphosed into penitence. As with all of the cast, her diction was impeccable. (The acoustic of the Philharmonie helps but it can only help.) The predominance of French singers was definitely an advantage when it came to idiom, both in terms of music and pronunciation. Sophie Koch was a joy in each of her roles, perhaps especially in the genuinely funny Cat-duet with François Le Roux. It was a delight to welcome back José van Dam for his cameo appearance. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt was as wickedly winning a presence as one would expect. In the soprano roles, Annick Massis and Mojca Erdmann both shone, the former proving an especially fine Princess, the latter every inch the nightingale. And Nathalie Stutzmann devoted her inimitably rich contralto to a number of roles, not least that of the Mother. She truly inhabited each of her roles, never at the expense of truly Gallic style. Just as impressive was the interaction between the singers. One might have fancied them directed – and by a stage director who knew what he was doing. The choral singing was excellent: one could hear pretty much every word and with a beguiling timbre too. I very much hope that we shall be treated to a recording.

Mark Berry

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