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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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DEBUSSY and RAVEL
Orchestral Works conducted by Jean MARTINON
The Classic EMI Recordings from the Salle Wagram, Paris, 1973 and 1974
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
CD1

La Mer (1904) [24.26]

Nocturnes (1900) [22.32]

Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune (1894) [10.29]
Marche écossaise (1891) [6.23]
Berceuse héroïque (1914) [4.47]

Musiques pour le Roi Lear (1904) [4.58]

CD2

Jeux (1912) [18.15]

Images (1905) [32.23]

Printemps (1882) [16.00] (orch Henri BÜSSER)

CD3
Children’s Corner (1908) [18.18] (orch André CAPLET)

Petite Suite (1888) [13.33] (orch Henri BÜSSER)

Danse sacrée et danse profane (1903) [9.15]

La Boîte à joujoux (1913) [31.40] (orch André CAPLET)

CD4

Fantaisie pour piano et orchestra (1890) [23.53] (ed. André JOUVE)

La plus que lente (1910) [6.00]

Première Rapsodie pour orchestre avec clarinette principale (1903) [8.11]

Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone solo (1905) [10.02]

Khamma (1912) [20.24] (orch Charles KOECHLIN)

Danse: Tarantelle styrienne (1905) [5.44] (orch Maurice RAVEL)

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
CD5

Boléro (1928) [14.56]

Une Barque sur l’océan (1905) [7.18]

Ma Mère l’Oye (1908) [36.44]

Alborada del gracioso (1905) [7.53]

Rapsodie espagnole (1907) [16.06]

CD6

Shéhérazade: Ouverture de féerie (1903) [13.47]

La Valse (1920) [12.35]

Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917) [17.56]

Menuet antique (1909) [6.19]

Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899) [6.32]

Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911) [16.35]

CD7

Daphnis et Chloé (1912) [56.25]

CD8

Concerto for the Left-Hand (1931) [18.26]

Piano Concerto in G major (1931) [23.32]

Tzigane (1924) [9.53]

Aldo Ciccolini (piano)

Itzhak Perlman (violin) (Tzigane)

Marie-Claire Jamet (harp) (Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane)

Guy Dangain (clarinet)

Jean-Marie Loneix (saxophone)

Jean-Claude Malgloire (cor anglais) (G major piano concerto)

Alain Marion (flute) (Faune)

Michel Sedrez, Fabienne Boury (piano duet) (Printemps)

Jules Goetgheluck (oboe) (Children’s Corner)

John Leach (cimbalom) (La plus)

Fabienne Boury (piano) (Khamma)

Marcel Gallègue (trombone) (Boléro)

André Sennedat (bassoon) (Alborada)

Michel Garcin-Marrou (horn) (Pavane)

Choeurs de l’ORTF

Choeurs du Théâtre National de l’Opéra

Orchestre National de l’ORTF/Jean Martinon (Debussy)

Orchestre de Paris/Jean Martinon (Ravel)

Rec Paris 1973-74 DDD

EMI CLASSICS CZS 5 75526 2 [8CDs: 73.35+69.39+72.24+74.14+75.36+74.28+56.25+52.04]

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When Pathé-EMI recorded this comprehensive (or well nigh comprehensive) Debussy and Ravel series in 1973 and 1974 little did they think that these readings would have had such a long shelf-life. Their investment must have been repaid many times over.

I lose track of the number of combinations in which these have been reissued over the years. Originally they appeared in two substantial and opulently decadent HMV SLS boxes (Ravel SLS 5016 and Debussy SLS 893; 5LPs in each). If I recall correctly each was adorned with a Bakst canvas - one of which was of Nijinsky as Debussy's faun. Swathes drawn from each set appeared in various boxes (EMI double fortes CZS5 72667 2 and CZS5 72673-2 for Debussy and one Ravel CZS5 68610-2). No doubt French EMI have issued the same tapes in many different guises and formats. Here the recordings put in their most economical and elegantly utilitarian appearance yet. Their intrinsic artistic and technical faculties are completely uncompromised - enhanced rather. The convenience of this single package is only vied with by its many artistic delights.

The two composers are allotted disc space symmetrically. Each has four discs even if the Debussy discs are more tightly packed. The ORTF orchestra is entrusted with the Debussy; the Orchestre de Paris with the Ravel.

Martinon's Debussy and Ravel were always joyously liberated. Atmosphere and the recreation of front-to-back and left-to-right depth continues to work as well as on the original black discs. Of course these were performances taken down onto analogue stock but aside from a subtle unassertive tape hiss, only audible when you drive the loudspeakers really hard, there are no deleterious results and nothing approaching distortion.

Martinon was born in 1910 in Lyon. He studied in his home city and in Paris - latterly with d'Indy and Roussel. He played the violin in the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. After further studies at the Sorbonne he worked with Munch and Désormière. In the Second World War he served with the French Army and was taken prisoner in 1940, spending two years in a POW camp. He escaped from the camp three times. While in captivity he wrote a symphony (the first of five), a motet Absolve domine in memory of French musicians who died in the war and a setting of Psalm 136 which became known as Chants des Captifs. Release in 1943 saw him appointed conductor of the Bordeaux orchestra and then, as assistant to Munch, at the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. He was principal conductor of the ORTF Orchestra from 1968 until his death. We tend to forget that these recordings were made within a couple of years of Martinon's death in 1976 though there is no sign of palling of imagination.

 

Martinon's elegance and sound technique were a byword in the profession. His interpretations are strong on clarity. He was mild of temperament and was not inclined to dive into the sort of blazing rows so relished by some conductors. His spell (1983-68) with the Chicago Symphony (immediately after the tyrannical Fritz Reiner) was unhappy. Martinon was split between factions including the antipathetic critic of the Chicago Tribune, Claudia Cassidy. He was relieved to leave and to return to the congenial locale of the Paris Orchestra and the ORTF. To some degree Martinon came to regret that he was so strongly associated with French music rather as Boult and Handley have been so tightly bound up with English music. Martinon hankered to conduct Mahler but death intervened.

By general consensus these recordings are Martinon's finest legacy. In them he shows a poignant mastery of pulse and orchestral balance; the latter especially important in the case of Debussy who can sound muddy otherwise. He directs an exciting La mer. In De l’aube at 08.38 the crashing climax illustrates the racing drama of this reading. Listen also to the priapic Scriabin-like trumpet at 00.51 in Dialogue du vent. I have heard sharper rhythmic drive in other hands but Martinon conjures a telling effect for his Nocturnes. The choir in Sirènes sounds almost casual rather than idyllic. Martinon’s Prélude a l'après midi d’un faune has the blood oozing through the veins. The warm flute of Alain Marion is a large part of the honeyed mesmeric quality Martinon achieves. The last time I heard something like this was in Serge Baudo’s Supraphon LP collection. Marche ecossaise is a jolly oddity like the oddball march of a Scottish regiment complete with drone bagpipe imitation. The Lear music was written for André Antoine's production. Its long tragic march has Gabrieli-like trumpet and trombone ‘collisions’ and a generally troubled spell. This carries over into Berceuse héroïque which is pregnant with the sort of foreboding I have been hearing recently in Miaskovsky’s Seventh and Tenth symphonies.

Jeux was somewhat eclipsed at its premiere by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It contains echoes of Dukas’s L’Apprenti sorcier. Martinon is much more striking in Images. His Gigues has delicacy and balance. Note the orotund brass in Par Les Rues Et Par Les Chemins. Parfums is somnolent and in Le matin d’un jour de fête one is aware of the careful balancing of dynamics. The fuzzy Printemps is rather under-powered. We rediscover freshness in Children's Corner with the captivating charm of Serenade for the Doll and the Charlot shuffle of Golliwoggs Cakewalk. In Petite Suite which is superlative light music the lovely En Bateau is taken quite quickly. I ‘learnt’ Danse sacrée et danse profane from the recording by Paul Kuentz with the harpist Nicanor Zabaleta and although I recall that version as being closely recorded this version with the equally famous Jamet is similarly numinous - a recording of ineffable rapture. The Caplet orchestrated Boîte à Joujoux is memorable for the delicious dissonances of La Bergerie à vendre.

The last of the four Debussy discs has the three concertante works and three other pieces. In the Fantaisie, an early work of easy whirling flourishing caprice, Ciccolini makes a sensitive soloist in this low key fantasy; no concerto high jinks. The Premiere rhapsodie was a 1910 test piece for the Conservatoire and sketches out Debussy’s mature qualities in microcosm. The saxophone Rapsodie was a commissioned work which was taken from first draft (as far as Debussy got!) and orchestrated and more by Jean Roger-Ducasse (1873-1954). These works are pleasant listening but are not terribly memorable. La Plus Que Lente shows signs of central European gypsy style rather like Valse Triste. Khamma, an exotic ballet, was commissioned by Maud Allen in 1912. The story is of the dancing girl who sacrifices herself to save her city. It was orchestrated by Koechlin who at various times in his career had a weakness for oriental and middle-eastern fantasy (Les Heures Persanes is one of his best works). To bring us roundedly on to the next four discs we have the lively Tarantelle Styrienne which was orchestrated by Ravel.

I was brought up on Ravel drawn from the exported French style interpretations of Baudo and Antonio Pedrotti with the Czech Philharmonic. These were encountered on Supraphon LPs. I recall Baudo’s explosive Boléro and the pointilliste delicate poetry of Pedrotti’s Ma Mère l’Oye - a reading matched only twice since then - once in a unforgettable concert performance by Louis Frémaux (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Bristol’s Colston Hall circa 1974) and then in Monteux’s Philips recording - once issued on a Universo LP and now reissued on a ‘Philips 50 Original’ CD. Why on earth have the Supraphons not been transferred onto CD? If Supraphon are listening, I am sure that a French series would do extremely well. However, rather like their equally valuable Lovro von Matacic Bruckner and Alois Klima’s electric performance of Suk’s War Trilogy, these seem doomed to permanent LP relegation.

After the lustrous textures of Debussy the orchestration lightens and aerates with Ravel. The playing is still hall-marked by tubby French brass and woodwind. Martinon's Boléro is stupendously raw and ultimately brash. It does not have the limousine refinement of Karajan. The shimmer and tidal pull of the sea is clear from Barque sur l'océan. There is a Frank Bridge parallel at 1.45 (The Sea). In  the case of Ma Mère l’Oye I am not quite wooed from the lovely Monteux recording but this is the complete ballet. The more I hear this work the more I come to regard it as a masterpiece of the gentlest beauty. In the case of Jardin F'éerique this magic is coupled with the triumph of the carillon and richly swept horn glissandi rushes.

Alborada snaps and prattles away but the engineers noticeably pull back on the controls at 0.50 as the full orchestra comes in leaching away some of the effect. Rapsodie receives a performance as ecstatic and yet as finely painted as you could want though again it does not supplant Monteux (Philips). The Sheherazade - Ouverture de féerie is a very early work written when Ravel was only 24 and it looks hopefully towards Rimsky and Balakirev yet leavens the mix with auguries of Ravel's maturity.

The recording of La Valse makes you aware how alive this is bristling with directional information and life. Martinon breathes and blows on the silky drapes of this wayward warm work with a knowledge borne of years of experience. Every little gradation of dynamic is exploited and lifted and yet the conductor keeps up the pulse. It reels with perfumed delirium.

The Tombeau dates from the years of the Great War and was dedicated to six friends killed in action. The Rigaudon is notable for the way the dazzling trumpets ‘sit on top’ of the flibbertigibbet rhythmic spasm. The Pavane is a peaceful refuge. The Valses Nobles et Sentimentales is again rich with directional information and orchestral detail. The sound is warm and honeyed throughout and the performances are to match. The Daphnis has a wonderfully built Lever Du Jour. This is playing soused in intoxicants, bathed in ecstatic abandon. Track 9 of Daphnis has a wind machine that makes a sympathetic zephyr like susurration rather than a Scott of the Antarctic bone-chill. At tr. 16 the evocation of dewy-leafage and birdsong rises and stretches to welcome a softened victorious dawn.

The concertos are vigorous and recorded up close. Ciccolini puts in good performances if without the scintillating subtleties of Michelangeli or Collard. In fact I wondered several times whether the old Studio 4 techniques (the EMI riposte to Decca's Phase 4 much associated with Herrmann, Ainslee Cox and Stokowski) were coming out to play. The potency of this recording is demonstrated by the slow bass ‘squeals’ amid the piano filigree at track 2 3.06. Tzigane is a fairly rare piece (I recall a Szeryng recording on Philips from many years ago). Its gypsy allegiance is challenged by a distinct Sephardic accent. Tzigane is not the most successful of pieces but Perlman makes the most of his opportunities and the recording is excellent: note the glories of the harp web-weave at 4.38. The interpretative merits of this set are buttressed by the wide-ranging choice of repertoire. Rare pieces have been included: Debussy: Le Roi Lear, Khamma, the Rhapsodies and Tarantelle Styrienne; Ravel: the Ouverture de féerie.

This series is uniform in appearance with previous budget releases including the sound Boult RVW and outstanding Berglund-Sibelius symphony boxes. The booklet has full notes (newly commissioned by the look of it) from James Harding and these are also translated into French and German. The notes are readable though where anyone got the idea that Koechlin's Jungle Book cycle is a 'triptych' I don't know (it comprises four orchestral poems and three choral/orchestral pieces).The fold-out light card box (similar to the wallet sets issued by Brilliant Classics) holds each CD in its own card sleeve rather like the card sleeves which us dinosaurs recall from the days of the LP.

Of course a life's mission will probably yield up better interpretations. This platitudinous caveat about boxed sets will apply but if you were to start your Ravel and Debussy collection here you would have been fortunate indeed. Personally I have a preference for Monteux in Ma Mère l'Oye and Pavane, for Fournet, Baudo and Pedrotti in various Czech-based interpretations of this territory (I recall a superb Supraphon La Mer conducted by Baudo, I think), for Paray's Detroit recordings and some time ago Ozawa's Boston Ravel surprised me (agreeably) on a DG Panorama set. Tilson Thomas is also well worth hearing. An excellent budget alternative is on Vox with Skrowaczewski conducting the Minnesota Orchestra at about the same time as these Paris sessions. Others revere Boulez, Haitink and Karajan. However as a single Gallic cornerstone to your collection which you might leave as the only Ravel/Debussy entry for years you can hardly better this.

What this supplicant now awaits from EMI Classics is a further box with the complete Fauré orchestral music and another with the Saint-Saëns piano concertos (Ciccolini), the works for violin and orchestra (Hoelscher - including the superb and much underestimated Caprice Andalou) and the five symphonies as conducted by Martinon. Is it too much to hope that this series will also eventually include the Nielsen orchestral works (Blomstedt/Danish Radio SO).

Martinon, though he considered himself hobbled by his reputation as a Gallic specialist, makes a very strong showing indeed. Not only is this set of compelling artistic attraction it is kind to the bank balance and also takes up less than 2.5 cm of shelf space. These are all opulently recorded, not especially analytical, but conveying the illusion of lifelike sound and palpable immediacy. Fortunate the collector who chances on this set or who receives it as a gift. Years of delight and revelation are on offer. At super-bargain price you need look no further; a gift that will cast its smiling spell for years to come.

Rob Barnett

 


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