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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Orchestral Works

ANDANTE 1978 [3 CDs: 76:46; 77:24; 78:47]


CD 1

Ma mère l’oye – Suite
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/André Cluytens
Rec. 20.10.1949, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris
Piano Concerto in G*, Pavane pur une infante défunte
Marguerite Long (piano)*, Symphony Orchestra/Pedro de Freitas-Branco
Rec. 14.04.1932, Studio Albert, Paris
Daphnis et Chloë – Suite no. 1
University of California Chorus, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
Rec. 03.04.1946, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
Daphnis et Chloë – Suite no. 2
Orchestre des Concerts Straram/Philippe Gaubert
Rec. 24.03.1930, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris
Alborada del gracioso

Orchestre des Concerts Straram/Walter Straram
Rec. 30.03.1931 Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris
CD 2

Boléro

Lamoureux Orchestra/Maurice Ravel
Rec. 01.1930, Paris
Le tombeau de Couperin

Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Piero Coppola
Rec. 27.10.1930, Paris
Valses nobles et sentimentales

Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Piero Coppola
Rec. 05.02.1934, Salle du Conservatoire, Paris
Piano Concerto in D for Left Hand
Alfred Cortot (piano), Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Charles Munch
Rec. 12.05.1939, Théâtre Pigalle, Paris
Boléro

Grand Orchestre Symphonique (du Gramophone)/Piero Coppola
Rec. 13.01.1930, Salle Pleyel, Paris
CD 3

La valse

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
Rec. 21.04.1941, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
Menuet antique

Lamoureux Orchestra/Albert Wolff
Rec. 01.1930, Paris
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) orch. RAVEL

Sarabande, from Pour le piano
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
Rec. 03.04.1946, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
DEBUSSY orch. Ravel

Sarabande, from Pour le piano, Danse
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
Rec. 30.10.1930, Symphony Hall, Boston
RAVEL

Rapsodie espagnole

Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
Rec. 23 and 25.04.1945, Symphony Hall, Boston
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) orch. RAVEL

Pictures at an Exhibition

Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
Rec. 28-30.10.1930, Symphony Hall, Boston

 

This Andante album contains the usual handsome booklet setting out in three languages the objectives and transfer philosophy of the company, with notes on the composer and his music which seem aimed at first-time listeners (but surely a first-time listener should be getting more recent recordings which do full justice to Ravel’s wonderful orchestration?). Eventually we get some notes on the performances by Paul Griffiths and potted biographies of most of the performers (de Freitas-Branco is omitted). I should have liked to have known if these were all the first recordings of the respective pieces, and if not (though some certainly were), when and by whom their predecessors were made.

The majority of these recordings were set down while Ravel was still alive; again, I would have liked to have known if he was present in the studios and, if not, are his comments on any of the performances preserved?

In many cases early recordings, made close to the date of composition and by performers especially associated with the work, carry a special authority. As will be seen, I am not convinced that this album, interesting though it is, offers any particular revelations of that kind.

CD 1

CD 1 contains two items, those under Cluytens and Monteux, which their respective conductors re-recorded in stereo – the complete Daphnis under Monteux (who had conducted the première) is a classic of the gramophone. Since both artists were very consistent in their interpretations over the years there seems no pressing reason to hear these early incarnations. The Monteux certainly testifies to the high standards he obtained in San Francisco but the quiet opening is practically obscured by the background hiss. Cluytens brought special insights to certain other works of Ravel, as I shall relate below.

The G major Piano Concerto recording was long held in esteem, not least because it was first issued as conducted by Ravel himself. This attribution still appeared on LP transfers in the 1970s but was queried by a correspondent in Gramophone, followed by a letter from de Freitas-Branco junior confirming that it had been conducted by his father. Yet authority remains, since Ravel’s favourite pianist was playing, only three months after the première (which the composer did conduct). Marguerite Long has all the virtues of the old French school, with sparkling passagework, a clear sense of line and a generally unaffected approach. She plays the concerto as if it had been written by Saint-Saëns. Evidently this was how Ravel wanted it, but it must be said that later pianists such as Michelangeli and Argerich have uncovered a whole range of subtleties and insights (no one would guess, here, that the second subject of the first movement was inspired by a hearing of Rhapsody in Blue) without distorting the nature of the work and I suspect I speak for most modern listeners when I say that to my ears Long’s performance just doesn’t go far enough. De Freitas-Branco’s Pavane is nicely turned but there must be hundreds of later recordings of which one could say the same thing, many of them offering modern sound.

Philippe Gaubert’s account of the second Daphnis suite is much more rewarding. For one thing it shows that Paris in 1930 could boast at least one orchestra of a fully international standard, but more importantly the conductor’s care for balance and pacing together with a real sense of poetry and plenty of energy in the Danse génerale make for a version which, except sonically (though the sound is very reasonable for its date), can take its place among the best of those that followed. However, the excellence of this reading also induces the comforting thought that, while many performances from the 1930s (Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, let alone baroque music) sound strikingly different from what we expect today, a typical performance of Daphnis under Abbado, Dutoit or Haitink (to name just three present-day exponents of the non-individualistic school) sounds very much as Ravel himself would have heard and, presumably, wished. The high quality of the Walter Straram Orchestra can also be appreciated in the deft rendering of Alborada under its founder.

CD 2

Ravel’s insistence during a rehearsal conducted by Toscanini that Boléro should go at a slow and steady tempo elicited from that redoubtable demon of the baton the famous response: "You don’t understand your own music". The recording conducted by the composer himself is generally held up as evidence of Ravel’s own conductorial incompetence. It is not really a matter of a slowish tempo as such – Celibidache was later to draw it out further still with mesmeric results – as of a plodding lack of lift to the accompanying rhythms. This is shown up by the version recorded in the same month under a real conductor, Piero Coppola. It is true that Coppola allows some adjustments to the tempo towards the end while Ravel ploughs steadily on, but he certainly realises the steady growth from the sultry beginning to the orgiastic close. It is also revealed that Polydor were lagging behind HMV in the development of their recording techniques – the Coppola has considerably more presence.

In many ways Coppola provides the focal point for this second CD. Born in Milan in 1888 he became artistic director of French HMV and in this role recorded a wide range of mostly French music. He died in 1971. In the Prélude and the Rigaudon from Le tombeau de Couperin he obtains a litheness and a mercurial grace which elude the heavier André Cluytens in his early stereo recording with the same orchestra. His exact observance of Ravel’s metronome mark in the first of these pieces (there is no mark for the Rigaudon, at least not in the piano version) may be a coincidence since he is slightly swifter in the Menuet (though without any sense of haste) and much slower in the Forlane. The metronome marking for this latter piece is quite impossibly fast, however (I have never heard it observed), and it is useful to hear that this was already recognised in Ravel’s own lifetime. It must be said, though, that Coppola does not entirely realise that if this rather long piece is not to outstay its welcome, a fuller characterisation of its contrasting episodes is needed, and here it is Cluytens who is more successful.

In many ways Cluytens (1905-1967) assumed a similar role with post-war French EMI (without actually being its Artistic Director) to that of Coppola before the war, recording the complete works of Debussy and Ravel and much other French music, but he was also admired in the German/Austrian classics. He could be flabby where the music requires a galvanic approach, putting his Daphnis at a disadvantage beside Munch and Monteux, and dull-witted where pin-point precision was called for, hence Coppola’s greater success with most of Le Tombeau. But he knew how to make an orchestra breathe and how to elicit a warm sound and sensitive phrasing from it, and he had an exceptional feeling for Viennese waltz rhythms as seen through French eyes. As a result he conducted Valses nobles et sentimentales, and also La valse, with a quite remarkable insight which has hardly been matched elsewhere. It all boils down to pacing the three beats of the waltz rhythm, and in comparison the admirable Coppola sounds amiable but ultimately more efficient than inspired.

If there is a tendency to think of French conductors as elegant, classical purveyors of their native music, there was always Charles Munch on hand to warn against any such typecasting. His galvanic, euphoric conducting of the Left-Hand Piano Concerto seethes with Rite of Spring-ish tension. Nor was Cortot a "typical" French pianist – though he was possibly the greatest of them all. His no-holds-barred, freely passionate playing, ideally matched by Munch, may not have represented Ravel’s ideal but is all the more enthralling for that! Legend has it that he played the work in a comfortable version of his own for both hands but who cares when the result knocks spots off most others. In spite of the sonic limitations this has to be heard.

CD 3

CD 3 begins with another interpretation that was re-recorded in stereo: Monteux’s La Valse. In this case the later Philips recording has not acquired a particularly classic status, though it has always been admired, with the result that the electrifying San Francisco version is still worth a hearing. It celebrates the waltz of the Belle époque with a verve worthy of Offenbach himself. However, we know that Ravel wished to evoke the Viennese waltz and I can only reiterate my view that in this piece, as in the Valses nobles et sentimentales, André Cluytens showed a particular insight beside which Monteux seems superficial.

The Menuet antique was recorded in the same month, with the same orchestra and by the same company, as Ravel’s own Boléro, but with a proper conductor noted for his ballet performances, Albert Wolff. He shows a firm hand and an easily lilting approach in an early piece which hardly calls for more from its interpreter. Monteux shows his sympathetic hand in the Debussy arrangement but he is surpassed in dynamic shading and subtlety of pulse by Koussevitzky, who is the protagonist of the remainder of the programme. If he cannot persuade us that it was worth Ravel’s while to orchestrate the very modest early "Danse" by Debussy, he comes into his own in Rhapsodie espagnole. As was his wont, tempi are often on the slow side but with enormous neurotic, hypnotic tension. Rather than under romantic half-lights, Spain is viewed beneath the scorching midday sun, but such passion, such colour and such rhythmic flamboyance are unforgettable and the performance should be heard by all admirers of Ravel.

The Mussorgsky transcription was commissioned by Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Again, one or two tempi seem waywardly slow but the conductor’s characterisation of the different pictures, aided by brilliant orchestral playing, makes for one of the most rewarding recordings of a much recorded piece.

On the whole, though, I can only confirm my earlier impression that early interpreters of Ravel did not possess any particular insights which have not been matched in more recent years, nor any special sense of style which has since been lost. The G Major Piano Concerto has been illuminated by later performers but by and large the fanatical precision with which the music was written does not leave a lot of space for personalised interpretations. Furthermore, Ravel does not belong to an age so very far distant in history, and several interpreters who were active in his own day, Monteux, Munch, Cluytens and – not represented here – Ernest Ansermet, lived to record their performances in stereo so those who wish to study "authentic" Ravel need not delve far back into the collector’s world of ancient 78s. Paul Griffiths’s notes mention string portamento as a possibly authentic feature which has disappeared today, but Cluytens’s 1960s recordings with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra contain as much of it as any here. It is certainly interesting for the broader-based collector to hear the work of those conductors who did not survive into the LP era, such as Gaubert and Coppola, while anything conducted by Koussevitzky demands to be heard. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing most of the performances here, but I am basically fascinated by performances of the past, and I fear my recommendation must be principally to those who share my interest.

Christopher Howell

This set induces the comforting thought that, by and large, modern interpreters of Ravel have got it about right. … see Full Review

 



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