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
Orchestra du Capitole de
rec. 26-31. 3/1-2. 4. 2000, Toulouse.
EMI 7243 5 57032 2
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
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
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.