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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La Valse (1920) [13:55]
Ma Mère l’Oye Cinq Pièces Enfantines (1908) [14:11]
Pavane pour une Infante Défunte (1899) [6:26]
Boléro (1928) [15:17]
Berlin Symphony Orchestra/Günther Herbig
rec. details not given: originally published 1979
Experience Classicsonline

Günther Herbig, now in his late seventies, made his reputation in the old East German state, though he was actually born in Czechoslovakia. He became known in the west in the early 1980s, a period when he was Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Northern Symphony orchestra (now the BBC Philharmonic), and many Mancunians will recall a string of magnificent performances from that period. He is best-known for his interpretations of the Austro-German classics, but is in fact a conductor with wide sympathies. So it comes as little surprise that this disc contains stylish, meticulous performances of these French ‘lollipops’.

I’ll return to the music in a moment; but these Berlin Classics ‘Schätze der Klassik’ (probably best rendered as ‘Best-Loved Classics’) were new to me, so I was intrigued by the presentation. The discs come in a pretty case of the ‘booklet’ type, with a classy gold seal on the front cover. But inside, there is - nothing! – apart of course from the disc itself. No information, no notes on the music, nothing about the performers. 

No surprise, then to find no details of recording dates and venues either; all we have is a date of original publication given as 1979. This is interesting, as it was the point when Herbig began to become better-known in the West. The orchestra here however is the Berlin Symphony, which was based in East Berlin, and was thus in a sense the communist counterpart of the Berlin Philharmonic, based in West Berlin. It was a fine orchestra, and still exists today, though now named the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, after the hall which is its home. 

These then are excellent performances. ‘La Valse’ gets a thoroughly idiomatic treatment, with the slightly exaggerated rubato (flexibility of tempo) that emphasises the element of parody. Some orchestral details are not as prominent as they might be – the trombone scales at track 1 (2:55) are weak enough to make me suspect the players of dozing! – but the final climax is convincingly seismic, and the work’s character is well projected. 

The same is true of the Mother Goose Suite that follows. The playing draws out sensitively Ravel’s delicate sensuality. The recording is mostly good, allowing details such as the bird-cries in ‘Petit Poucet’ (Tom Thumb), or the contra bassoon in ‘La Belle et la Bête’ (Beauty and the Beast) to register naturally, without ‘spotlighting’. The only major disappointment for me was the string sound in the ineffable final movement, ‘Le Jardin Féerique’. This calls for an intense, hushed pianissimo at the outset, but the Berlin strings – and the recording engineers – can find only a rather muddy, unattractive tone colour. 

Oh and that Boléro? It’s fine - said through gritted teeth. In fact let’s be honest, it’s a good performance of a piece I want to listen to about once every five years or so. No more.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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