These CDs undoubtedly form a good introduction
to the music of Maurice Ravel. No mere tit-bits here; there
are several quite substantial works given in full, including
La Valse, the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, the Introduction
and Allegro for Harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet and
several more. And the selection really does give a flavour
of the broad spectrum of the composer's work - from the Neo-Classicism
of Le Tombeau de Couperin to the Blues of the Violin Sonata.
CD1 begins in a slightly peculiar way, with two
rather inconsequential and very brief movements from the Valses
nobles et sentimentales. Lovely as these are, they don't stand
on their own particularly well. After that things gradually
get underway, with the opening movement of the lovely Sonatine
for piano, stylishly played by Francois-Joel Thiollier. Sadly,
the recording of this and the other piano works found on the
discs is very boxy and unflattering. That is followed by
the aforementioned Introduction and Allegro, one of the composer's
most characteristic works. Not a particularly inspiring performance,
however (Kodály Quartet with harpist Eva Maros), a little
lacking in sparkle, and with a singularly pedestrian conclusion.
The highlight on the first disc is the very fine
account of that maverick masterpiece, the Piano Concerto for
Left Hand. The pianist is the young Georgian Elissa Virsaladze,
who plays with authority and fire, and is well supported by
the St.Petersburg Philharmonic under Alekseev. The quite
slow tempi the performers adopt allow the jazz rhythms to
register, while the melancholy, even tragic, undertow of the
work comes across powerfully, too. As do the extraordinary
touches in the orchestration, e.g. the long contrabassoon
solo at the very beginning as the work climbs from Stygian
CD2 begins with the whole of the second Daphnis
et Chloë suite (complete with wordless chorus), then more
boxy piano for Jeux d'eau - what a pity, because Thiollier
plays it quite beautifully, and I admit I forgot about the
recording's shortcomings as the piece unfolded. One of my
favourite movements of all time, the gorgeous Assez vif from
the string quartet follows, in a vivacious performance by
the Ad Libitum Quartet.
Quite naturally, much the larger part of the music
here is instrumental, as that is what we chiefly associate
with Ravel. But the two songs, one on each disc, remind us
what vocal riches he left, too. On Disc 1, the rich alto
of Claire Brua gives us one of the delicious Chansons espagnoles,
while on Disc 2, baritone Laurent Naouri sings one of the
songs from the cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. Naouri has
a very light, young voice, not yet fully settled, though he
is extremely sensitive in his projection of the text.
The last two tracks seem to epitomise the extremes
of Ravel's aesthetic. The slow movement of the G major Piano
Concerto is an avowed tribute to Mozart, and as such is one
of the most rarefied of 20th century concerto movements.
And then what? Why, of course, that old pot-boiler Boléro.
Well, every great man has his weak spot! We mustn't forget,
though, that Boléro was an experiment, and a daring one at
that, aimed at finding out how far repetition as a musical
device could be pushed. Well, Minimalism has taught us that
it's possible (if not advisable) to go much further than Ravel
thought possible, hasn't it?
Listening to these CDs, I was almost overwhelmed
by the sheer beauty and variety of Ravel's output; one should
never lose sensitivity to that. OK, he may not be as 'great'
or 'major' a composer as Debussy or Stravinsky. But, for
this listener anyway, he never loses that capacity to stun
with the sheer gorgeousness of the music his imagination and
talent enabled him to create. For that reason alone, he is
a World Cup winner amongst French composers (I write this
as the outcome of The Final is unknown - and by tomorrow will
in any case be far less important in the great scheme of things
than Ravel's tiniest composition!).
So, a hugely enjoyable compilation; a private word
to Naxos, though, if I may. The
prime function of an issue like this is, presumably, to tickle
the palate of those as yet not very familiar with Ravel and
his music. But finding the information to take the next step,
i.e. actually buy some on CD, could be made a LOT easier!
Why not include source information for each recording in the
disc booklet, rather than require listeners to go the web-site?
For one thing, not everybody in the world has access to the
internet, or indeed a computer! It's a small carp (as the
fisherman said) but I think a valid one.