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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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).
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.