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Orchestrations by Ravel
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)

Menuet Pompeux (1881) [7:01]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Danse (1890) [5:28]
Sarabande (1894) [5:15]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Carnaval – excerpts (1834) [9:32]
Modest Petrovich MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)

Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) [32:48]
Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Daniele Callegari
rec. no information given.
TALENT DOM 292995 SACD [60:50]

The picture on the cover of this CD – a daub of red paint – is wonderfully apt. Ravel was an expert orchestral colourist, and often turned his hand to the orchestration of piano works, by himself and by others. His version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, commissioned by Koussevitsky, is the most famous and most popular of that work's many orchestral guises. Talent has here harnessed a fine performance of that masterpiece to a group of Ravel's less familiar orchestrations.

The disc opens with Chabrier's Menuet Pompeux, painted in bright orchestral colours by Ravel. The opening martial theme has a Spanish flavour that recalls Chabrier's Espaňa. The second subject, by contrast, is almost Elgarian in its wistfulness. While its thematic material does not really sustain a full seven minutes, this is lovely music, lovingly rendered for orchestra and performed with charm.

Of the two Debussy numbers, the first brims with humour and warmth. Together with the Chabrier, this piece is the sort of bonbon Beecham would have loved. I wonder if he ever conducted these orchestrations.

The Sarabande is quite different in feel. Ravel's orchestration is subtler here, paying tribute to the Bachian inspiration of the original piece for piano, which in its revised form is the centrepiece of Debussy's gorgeous Pour le piano.

The extracts from Schumann's Carnaval came as a bit of a shock to the system. Accustomed as I am to Gavrilov’s vigorous approach to the piano score, Ravel's orchestration struck me as unidiomatic or, to be more precise, un-Germanic and decidedly French. Nevertheless, the orchestrations have a suave beauty and are beguiling pieces in their own right.

You can find better performances of Pictures at an Exhibition than the one that closes this disc, but there is not much to complain about in this performance. Callegari secures lovely playing from his orchestra, with each Promenade well paced and well phrased, a vigorous Baba Yaga, and a flowing Great Gate of Kiev that refuses to wallow in grandeur. Sure, Gnomus could be more menacing, and the tempo manipulation in Tuileries sounds a little mannered, but on the whole this is a very enjoyable performance.

The playing of the Royal Flemish Orchestra is lovely throughout. They have a clean, clear sound – light in the base and so lacking some Russian edge, but then again this is Ravel's orchestration, and the French composer was himself concerned with smoothing some of the rougher edges of the piano score. Although I listened to this disc in stereo rather than SACD format, I found the sound admirably clear and well balanced. The liner notes are brief and the English translation of the original French text is odd, but not entirely unhelpful.

This is a delightful disc and a worthy addition to the Ravel discography.

Tim Perry


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