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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937)
Boléro (1928) [17.22]
La Valse (1920) [12.25]
Rapsodie Espagnole (1907) [16.14]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1905) [6.55]
Daphnis et Chloé Suite #2 (1912) [17.13]
Daphnis et Chloé Suite #2, "Chloé is accosted" [4.33]
Minnesota Orchestra/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
Recorded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, November 1974.
All CD tracks are in 2.0 stereo, without any mixdown of the rear channels.
All SACD tracks in discrete 4.0 Surround Sound, except the final track which is in discrete derived 5.0 Surround Sound.
Digitised and restored by Paul Stubblebine
Playable on SACD players and on all compact disk players
Hybrid SACD

ORIGINAL MASTERS RECORDING UDSACD 4002 [73.21]


Comparison recordings:
Pedro deFreitas Branco, Champs Elysées Theatre Orch. Westminster LP WL 5297
Boléro, Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra Sony 509555 2
Boléro, Hermann Scherchen, VSOO MCA MCD 80097
Boléro, Charles Dutoit, OSM Decca "London" VHS 440 071 255-3
"Ravel Conducts Ravel" [no artist information] Laserlight 14 201
Pavane, Rapsodie, Fritz Reiner, CSO RCA 60179-2
Rapsodie, Charles Munch, Orchestra de Paris EMI 7473562
Daphnis et Chloe, [complete] Charles Munch, BSO RCA 09026-61846-2

It is especially interesting that this disk should appear right now as I am currently involved in digitally restoring the granddaddy of all Ravel high fidelity demonstration recordings, the Westminster WL 5297 listed above, recorded monophonically in September of 1953 and now just out of copyright. This recording was important in another way in that it was the first high fidelity recording ever made of Boléro following the composer’s using oboe d’amour as called for in the score, and also recognising the composer’s stipulation that there be NO acceleration (the score reads "moderato assai") a long overdue repudiation of Toscanini’s revisionism which had dominated musical taste for decades. Branco witnessed Ravel accosting Toscanini after a performance and criticising the accelerated tempo. Toscanini said, "If I played it any slower it would not be endurable!" and stormed off. Ravel said, to whoever was still listening, "but I intended that it should be unendurable."

One of the most interesting recordings of Bolero appeared on a Laserlight bargain CD consisting mostly of piano works transcribed from 78s entitled "Ravel plays Ravel." But the Bolero on that disk is not transferred from old disks, instead it is a very clear modern digital recording! Tempo is brisk but there is almost no acceleration, the side drum is used with snares but is kept low key, and I’ll bet that is an oboe-d’amour. Who performed it? There is no clue, no mention whatever of orchestra or conductor.

I asked a friend who has played the oboe in orchestras to listen to several recordings of Boléro and tell me if they were using oboe d’amour or not. He said first that an oboe d’amour part is almost always simply played on the cor anglais. Second, he said it is all but impossible to tell from a recording which of the instruments is actually used since so much depends on the individual reeds, playing and recording technique, and the acoustics. One reason Ravel probably chose the oboe d’amour is that he wanted this part played quietly, and the oboe d’amour in this range is quiet and lyrical whereas a regular oboe could be loud and sharp. So, an oboist playing quietly could probably mimic the oboe d’amour with a little help from the recording engineer. In other words, he couldn’t tell me, so I listened carefully and made my own guesses. I say Skrowaczewski, Ormandy, "Maurice Ravel," and Scherchen are using oboe d’amour, and the others—no. And that’s about what you’d expect, so I’ll go with that.

As far as the drum is concerned, the score calls for "2 tambours" which could be orchestral side drums. However apparently Ravel himself always used small hand drums which never contributed more than a heartbeat to the music and were all but drowned out for most of later part of the work. Toscanini and his followers used a snare drum throughout. A snare drum can make a lot of noise, and the Toscanini canon has the snare drum getting louder and louder (for example, Charles Dutoit and l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal) until at the finale all you hear are the drum and the trumpets—sort of like having sex with John Philip Sousa. Most conductors start with a side drum without snares and then add snares at some point in the crescendo. Only Scherchen followed Ravel’s wishes exactly and used a small drum without snares throughout. Stokowski (All American Youth Orchestra, 1940) starts out with a small drum, quickly switching to orchestral side drum. But he disqualifies his recording by using an absurdly rapid tempo—they play as fast as they can flat out from bar 1!

Maestro Skrowaczewski also uses no accelerando, which took some courage in 1974, but in the intervening years it is Ravel and his original conception that have survived, to all our relief and joy. Even Scherchen in 1958 accelerated the tempo just a little.

In case you need a quick check, without acceleration Boléro should run longer than 17 minutes—whereas with acceleration it usually finishes in less than 15 minutes. Ravel himself described Boléro as a "17 minutes of music."

Some of the Minnesota solo musicians have a little fun adding 1920’s "hot-lick" phrasing to their parts, just as Ravel would have encouraged them to do if he were conducting himself. All this results in an wonderful sense of freedom and flow.

A persistent misapprehension also accompanies Pavane for a Dead Princess. In French that would be "Pavane pour une princesse morte." Ravel’s piece is really entitled "Pavane For a Defunct Infanta" which sounds about as silly in French as it does in English, and was selected, á la Rimbaud, as much for the alliterative word play as for any other reason. That title, and Alborada del Gracioso, are not intended to be taken as strictly descriptive. They were titled under the influence of Satie, who at that time was sarcastically calling his pieces things like "Preludes for a Dog" and "Pieces Shaped Like Pears" and "Apres-midi of a Sea Cucumber" This is not usually a problem with the Alborada which should be and is generally performed as the buffoonish ballet of a jester. But of the Pavane Ravel said, "It is not a funeral...for a dead child." Ravel meant it to be performed lightly, with irony, giving rise more to the image of the ghost of a child princess playing grownup in a palace corridor than to the image of poor, dead Juliet on her bier, which is what we often get. The original piano version with its left hand staccatos is easier to interpret correctly, whereas the orchestration by allowing greater latitude, also allows for interpretations that Ravel did not intend. Of course, Skrowaczewski gets it exactly right.

If Boléro was Ravel’s depiction of sex innocent of love, the ballet Daphnis et Chloé is his essay on love innocent of sex, and the ballet scenario actually includes on-stage sex education. Ravel said it was his attempt to re-experience the Ancient Greece that he longed for. The "Suite #2" consists essentially of Scene III of the ballet, beginning with the sunrise section including dawn chorus—which is on most people’s short list for the most beautiful music ever written—and ending with the big party when Daphnis and Chloe show they’ve learned their lessons by getting a little raunchy on stage.

Ravel did not consider Boléro a ballet, although it has been danced, notably and notoriously in a famous film sequence, and also on a recent (and disappointing) Decca/CBC video; he did write La Valse as a ballet, but it was never performed that way. A little bit of it also ends up in Valses Nobles et Sentementales. As with many parodies, La Valse is one of the most difficult of Ravel’s works to appreciate. Parts of it are ugly and chaotic, and it is so difficult to perform (either in the original orchestral version or the later piano transcription) that it remains a wonder that it is so frequently programmed. It was written two years after the end of the Great War and is supposed to be an allegory of the death of Nineteenth Century Vienna.

Rapsodie Espagnole starts off mysteriously and ends with a high energy flourish. The elderly Charles Munch brought it off brilliantly, as did the more elderly Leopold Stokowski, the much younger Leonard Bernstein and the dour Fritz Reiner, and as does Skrowaczewski. Even Eugene Ormandy did a good job on this one.

Skrowaczewski’s performances are perfectly idiomatic, in case anyone was afraid that a Pole couldn’t do French music. But then this is allegedly Spanish music written by a Frenchman whose mother was Basque and whose father was a Swiss Jew, so obviously the labels don’t apply—we are dealing with a musical universality that defies categorisation. And, after all, Munch was Alsatian, and Reiner was Hungarian, and Scherchen was Swiss. Branco was Portuguese. Maybe instead we should be asking why the French and Spanish don’t play this music more often?

This disk also celebrates the return to financial health of a pioneering company in the quality recording field, a company whose name was for many years associated with state-of-the-art LP reissues of famous analogue recordings from many labels, produced for the high end audio market which what we now call the "media conglomerates" would not bother to serve. Mobile Fidelity served their customers well at a remarkably low price, which may be one of the reasons why in the long term they did not survive financially the changeover to digital recording and CD’s, which occurred so quickly and so thoroughly that nobody in his or her right mind could possibly have foreseen it. A number of other worthwhile enterprises were severely damaged at that time, and it is good to see that many of them, including, for example, dbx, are with us again.

Even if your religion prohibits you from ever in the future owning an SACD player, you will want to buy this disk for the CD tracks which sound better than any CD of this music you’ve ever heard. And I should point out that I always test play disks on my small speaker system as well as on my large speaker system, and even on 5 inch speakers the sonic advantages in this disk were instantly obvious. But, incredible, unbelievable as that may seem, the SACD tracks sound even better...! This is "environmental" 4 channel, except in the Daphnis where the chorus is at the back of the hall. The "air" around the instruments, the dynamic sense of realism are simply overwhelming. When you need to convince your cynical friends that high resolution surround sound is not "just a gimmick" this is the one of the best disks you can use.

Some European music lovers might not be aware that the Minnesota Orchestra, formerly the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, has been one of the premier American symphony orchestras at least since the early 1940s and that both Dimitri Mitropoulos and Eugene Ormandy were its music directors before the famous tenure of Antal Dorati in the 1950’s. And by the way, in case you weren’t sure, Skrowaczewski is pronounced Skro-va-chef-ski.

The Pedro deFreitas Branco recording with Champs Elysées Theatre Orchestra, originally released on monophonic Westminster LP WL 5297, has been digitally restored to CD and will soon available on my private label, Pasigram.

Paul Shoemaker

 

 



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