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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Gloria for soprano, chorus and orchestra, FP 177 [23:51]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé - symphonie choréographique [53:18]
Jessica Rivera (soprano)
Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. 8-10 November, 2007, Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, Chicago, USA
CSO RESOUND CSOR901906 [77:09]
Experience Classicsonline


This is a wonderful new performance of Daphnis et Chloé, Maurice Ravel’s greatest orchestral achievement. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was in top form when these live performances were committed to disc, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was equally outstanding. Bernard Haitink conducts with great skill, though not always with magic. The CD’s volume level is surprisingly low - I had to turn the volume up to twice my usual level - but, once a satisfactory volume is found, the sonics are magnificent. If this is all you need to hear before making your investment, buy with confidence.

I have more to say, of course. Begin at the opening of Daphnis: a marvelous reading of these opening pages, with perfectly-judged flute and horn solos. Most striking, however, is the contribution of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. They will return later, in the a capella introduction of the ballet’s second part, with an even bigger part and even more stunning results. These singers obtain more mystery and beauty from a series of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ than most can from any number of lines of text. Credit must be given to the outstanding chorus master, Duain Wolfe, who has been with the Chicago Symphony since 1994, and to the individuals making up the Chicago Symphony Chorus, who are each listed in the booklet.

If the opening scene is marvelous and the ensuing dance seductive, the last few cues in the first part of the ballet tend to drag a little. This is not necessarily the result of slow tempi-indeed, Haitink often takes a faster pace than most of my references-but for whatever reason a sort of dead spot arises here. The loss of interest may, however, be only be obvious to listeners with considerable prior experience with the work: I dare say that, after hearing Pierre Boulez’ spectacular account with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon, all other recordings have been spoiled for me. Over the rest of the ballet, Bernard Haitink conducts with a freedom and, well, Frenchness that belies his stolid Germanic reputation.

After the chorus returns to save the day in Part II’s three-minute opening cue, Haitink leads a slowly-paced battle scene which despite (or perhaps because of) its tempo achieves a very welcome suspense. I must also note that this take yields a great wealth of orchestral detail; I heard much here that I had not before.

The legendary sunrise takes flight admirably, if not unforgettably, and the flute solo afterward is dispatched with perfection by Mathieu Dufour. The final dance is a madcap conclusion, and the Chicago Symphony and Haitink really ‘let it all hang out.’ It is a most satisfactory finale to a most satisfactory performance.

If the above summary does not perhaps do this playing justice, it is because I have neglected to mention the warm and crystal-clear sound. With many thanks to the engineers, we are able to hear everything going on in the orchestra at all times, and I learned of an abundance of details which were quite new to me. Daphnis seems to be a recording technician’s showpiece-the Boulez recording on DG offers some of the most awe-inspiring sound I have ever heard-and this CD is no exception, though not necessarily the exemplar (that’s still Boulez). Happily the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is so fine that its world-class playing makes even the aforementioned ‘dead spot’ enjoyable.

This is probably the best Daphnis in years: it features better playing and sharper focus than the Bordeaux/Petitgirard outing on Naxos, it is more warmly recorded and more memorable than the Gielen reissues on Hänssler and (in the United States) Arte Nova, and it is infinitely more interesting than the brisk, emotionless take by Jun Märkl and the Orchestre National de Lyon, which also featured downright unpleasant choral work.

The unusual but rather inspired coupling is Francis Poulenc’s marvelous Gloria. New listeners will love this jocular music, by turns peppy and probing, and some may recognize, in some of the brass writing, the influence of Janáček. An old Leonard Bernstein album couples Poulenc’s Gloria with Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, and frankly the idea is brilliant.

Once again we get to hear the very fine Chicago Symphony Chorus in absolutely top form, with the addition of soprano Jessica Rivera, a young American singer who specializes in contemporary music. Rivera, a lyric soprano with a bright, clear, simply beautiful tone, sings her solo in the third part so well that I found myself eagerly hunting down discographies online. (Some orchestra needs to hurry up and get her in the studio for a Verdi Requiem, and perhaps a turn as Musetta.) The Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra combine to really ‘sell’ the rest of this lovably eccentric work, which really does deserve a firmer place in the repertoire.  

There are still reference versions of Daphnis et Chloé which will go untouched by this recording - but even if you have Boulez in Berlin, Dutoit in Montreal or Monteux in London, this new CD from Chicago should be a welcome supplement to your collection. The Poulenc coupling is unique and utterly wonderful, the playing and singing is marvelous, and the booklet is lavishly designed (if not unusually informative). CSO Resound has scored a decisive hit releasing these live recordings for our home enjoyment, and with releases like this it helps to vindicate the growing trend of orchestras operating their own record labels. With productions of this calibre, who needs major labels?

Brian Reinhart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 


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