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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Cantates de Rome
Alyssa (1903) [25.26]
Véronique Gens, Yann Beuron. Ludovic Tézier
Alcyone (1902) [25.04]
Mireille Delunsch, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Paul Groves
Myrrha (1901) [23.07]
Norah Amsellem, Paul Groves, Marc Barrard
Orchestra du Capitole de Toulouse/Michel Plasson
rec. 26-31. 3/1-2. 4. 2000, Toulouse.
EMI 7243 5 57032 2 4[74.00]
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Listed Comparison

Alcyone, Alyssa
Mariana Nicolesco, Nadine Denize, Hein Meens, Wolfgang Glashof, Bamberg SO/Hubert Soudant. Rizzoli Records 2005. rec. 1987
Myrrha Paris Sorbonne Orchestra and Chorus Jacques Grimbert  Marco Polo 8.223755

His engineer father's income dropping, and the Ravel family almost needing the son as breadwinner (though always supportive of his music) Ravel turned to the Prix de Rome. He entered every year from 1900-03, and again with scandalous results in 1905. Dubois, Director of the Conservatoire, saw to it with others that he never got past the second stage, a 'mere act of competence' as Michael Oliver put it. Dubois was forced to quit and his rival Fauré reigned in his stead. Too late for Ravel, who on 7th March 1905, reached the age limit of 30, and celebrated it with aplomb. One of the few cheerful and public moments of his life, outside musical receptions...

In 1900 he never got past the second round either, the setting of the all-imposing, empty cantata, that Berlioz had so much trouble with. Again, prejudice must have played its part. But the winner at least was Florent Schmitt, another score to revive by a still under-exposed composer. In 1901 Ravel entered Myrrha, but that year he was rightly capped by Caplet, whose superior effort (he could somehow make real music from all this in a way Ravel found alien) can be found on a Choral CD, Marco 8.225043. André Caplet (1878-1925) was a very progressive composer, scoring for Debussy as his trusted arranger and whose early death lost him to view for many years.

By 1901 Ravel was moving into his Jeux d'eaux phase. A pupil of Fauré, thus suspiciously progressive, he nevertheless impressed Massenet. But Caplet's lighter, more translucent textures rightly won; his genius for a fresh take on this repertoire anticipated Lili Boulanger, whose Faust et Hélene of 1913 has also been recorded and acclaimed. Now these and others have been recorded, we can see true virtues in some Prix de Rome winners; if not in the ones who beat Ravel later. But in 1901 Myrrha sounds (as Michael Oliver put it) like 'watered-down Saint-Saens' and 'a dreadful jog-trot trio ... a feeble imitation of Gounod.' It is more surely operatic, a little more violent with splendid horn calls, and in fact does open a small window on operatic routes not taken. Nascent Magnard or Chausson perhaps, but the Schola Cantorum in true Franckian spirit rightly eschewed the Prix de Rome. The story, such as it is, is adapted or diluted by Fernand Blessier from Byron, about the death of Sardanapalus - the very same poem that inspired Delacroix nearly 80 years earlier. No orgasmic death of flesh here. Samson et Delilah do tend to flicker before one like an 8mm cine, an antiquated home movie version of once-fresh lyricism …and in black and white. As the wickedly funny booklet says, Ravel had to pass the second stage with the unwittingly funny choral set-piece entitled 'All is Light' to shed fresh murk in this work. 'There is not a cubic centimetre of Ravel'. Still, if it was by another composer you'd want to hear what else he wrote. It's perhaps judged through the wrong-ended telescope on genius. Or as the aftermath of Monty Python's Page 71 deflationary critics were countered by a lone cry 'Well, I liked it'. Saint-Saens at least enjoyed the homage and predicted for Ravel a 'serious future'. But although Caplet and Gabriel Dupont beat Ravel, all were awarded second prizes that year.

The next year, 1902, he was trailing, the last of the contestants allowed to go through to the cantata finals. Alcyone is, as most admit, a real improvement. Werther, and other Massenet models come in, but also more than a hint of Borodin; in fact the next work shows more of this Russian flavour, something perhaps subsumed in Ravel's development so early that it's transparent. Here, in works where he needed to show a kind of derivativeness, they pop up again. He was by this time beginning work on his String Quartet.

The plot is out of Ovid's Metamorphosis, house-written by Conservatoire Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Eugene and Eduard Adenis. They supplied many of the texts of the period and should be remembered. Alcyone awaits her husband King Ceyx and is calmed by her nurse. Her forebodings are answered, his ghost appears, rather solidly it seems. He's been shipwrecked and drowned, invites her to join him in sexy death and elicits some ardour. No sex/death climax like Tristan und Isolde suggests itself, so she survives. Morning, and his drowned body is brought in, and she falls lifeless on it. The scene is rather Maeterlinck-ish, all castles and dropping dead of love. And of course, by now, Pélleas et Mélisande was emerging, some of which Ravel might well have known before the premiere. Apparently the jury had to suppress any regard for it in this kind of judging. The opening prelude owns a far more memorable sweep, and is reminiscent of Chausson. But Alcyone's own vocal lines are straight out of Werther, and the lyric tenor role is cut from the same bars. But the climax to this melodically very attractive score becomes Ravel, in the orchestration, and in a greater variegation of voice and texture. Michael Oliver suggests Ravel ran out of inspiration for the pallid verses long before the end, though it's only about the last six or seven minutes. Still, the ending is perfunctory. Alcyone should have died rather gloriously. Perhaps it's the verismo of a heart-attack after all the preceding cholesterol.

Alyssa (1903) starts like Rimsky and ends like Rabaud I wanted to say, not Ravel. Not fair to Rabaud. But the opening is pure Rimsky modulated to Ravel, and Scheharazade is only a month or so away, helped by discarded chunks of Prix de Rome exercises. The lighter, far more playful, textures limning faery forests, and the hero seeking his faery princess, sound like Bax. It is Irish legend adapted frightfully. Marguerite Coffier has vanished. Yeats was beginning to supplant Maeterlinck.

The first tenor arias 'like Puccini without the genius' the booklet (by Marcel Marnat) gloats, aren't bad if bloodless (the heroine is a fairy!), because for once, the subject area suited Ravel's inclinations if not genius. Memorable themes with a sudden dramatic four-note drop into chromaticism clothe the surrounding textures, like tendrils and other droopy things in enchanted woods. But the story could hardly inspire. His princess being found by the hero tells him to choose immortal life with her or renounce her for ever in human form. Whereupon after some ecstatic affirmations, the 'rather tetchy bard' turns up 'to preach war not love' and off to duty and renunciation for him. Ravel at the point of a singing trio resorted to some Wagnerisms, perhaps inspired by the subject, close enough to Wagner. 'It was a sauce that was bound to curdle and the vulgar, spiced-up hotchpotch had obviously no chance of winning with the jury' Marnat finishes. Alyssa regretfully sings out in her crystal boat, a bit like the end of Boughton's The Immortal Hour. Which this hasn't been, exactly. Well, I liked it.

In truth the best music here tends to carry something of the sound of compromise in one who had early found his voice and was forced to dilute it.

The above-listed competition is elegant and more, with a sumptuous red and black print booklet to rival the EMI one, and equally pretty singers of both sexes, so one can almost believe in the scenarios. It's the story of young talent pushed through obscure material, but Veronica Gens though young is hardly that. And when I originally reviewed this Rizzoli team back in 1995, saying a Le Roux/Dutoit-led team might just bring out an extra richness and precision, I could hardly have hoped for the present cast. The earlier disc is something to snap up secondhand or in a sale, dramatically spirited, with a wonderful dramatic soprano in Mariana Nicolesco. The playing's full-blooded and committed too. But EMI's luxury casting, fully varied in each cantata, with Plasson taking over a minute less in the two later works (the Rizzoli didn't try Myrrha) adds a delicacy and inflection that make this mandatory for all Ravelians.

And the Prix de Rome? That was one thing the Revolutionaries got in 1968. Florid academe uprooted by flower power.

Simon Jenner

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