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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé, complete ballet in three scenes (1909-12) [59:16]
Bordeaux Opera Chorus
Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine/Laurent Petitgirard
rec. 3-5 January 2006, Franklin Hall, Bordeaux, France. DDD
NAXOS 8.570075 [59:16]

Naxos seem to have been featuring an increasing number of French regional orchestras on their recent releases. For this recording of the complete Daphnis they have turned to the Bordeaux orchestra.

One of Ravel’s finest scores the ballet Daphnis et Chloé was written to a commission from Serge Diaghilev whose brilliant Ballets russes were enjoying a immense success during their first Paris season. The impresario was enthusiastic to secure new works for the following year from leading French composers. Ravel started work in June 1909, using an adaptation of the ancient Greek tale by Longus, which had been prepared by choreographer Mikhail Fokine. Progress was erratic and did not reach the stage for another three years. Many choreographers have been attracted to Daphnis; most notably Sir Frederick Ashton with a 1951 adaptation for the distinguished duo of Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes.

Ravel described Daphnis as a "symphonie choréographique" though Diaghilev complained that it was more "symphonique" than "choréographique." At a playing time of around 50 to 60 minutes, it is Ravel’s longest work. He scored it for a large orchestra, including a wide variety of percussion, with a wordless mixed chorus, heard both onstage and offstage.

The music had its greatest success in concert and with recordings of the two orchestral suites that Ravel arranged, with only the minimum of changes, from the full score:

• Suite d'orchestre No.1: Nocturne, Interlude, Danse guerrière.
• Suite d'orchestre No.2: Lever du jour, Pantomime, Danse générale/Bacchanale.
This Naxos recording of the complete three-act ballet includes the significant choral parts.

The opening Introduction et danse réligieuse, is gloriously atmospheric. Petitgirard gradually builds up to a remarkable intensity at 2:37 (track 1). The religious dance rises to an impressive crescendo between 7:48-8:01 (track 1). In the scene Les jeunes filles attirent Daphnis the girls amuse with a lively and alluring dance. Dorcon's grotesque dance in the score Daphnis s’approche tendrement de Chloé is characterful with a real sense of wretched awkwardness. Daphnis’s dance for Chloé is charming and sensual and the laughing crowd is realistically portrayed at 5:54-5:59 (track 3). The wordless chorus 0:44-0:49 (track 4) is extremely effective in the scene Les rires s’interrompent. Temptress Lyceion and her dance of veils is highly successful. The fearful rumbling sounds of approaching conflict break out at 3:20 (track 4) with the terrifying appearance of the pirates. In Une lumière irréelle enveloppe le paysage we hear music of an eerie and sinister character that pervades the disturbing scene. The wordless chorus that covers the scene-change in Derrière la scene on entend des voix is superbly performed with considerable vigour and character.

In the opening scene Animé et rude of the second act the orchestra launches off with terrifying force straight from the opening bars. The Pirates busying themselves with their plunder are fearsomely portrayed. The scene Bryaxis ordonne d’amener la captive is blissful and dreamy. At 4:26-5:07 and 6:07-6:25 (track 8) Petitgirard expertly shifts the gentle mood to one of urgent excitement.

In the first scene, Lever de jour in the third and final act we hear love music of the highest quality. The music to the scene Le vieux berger Lammon is of a more reflective nature, infused with woodwind; especially from the flute of Samuel Coles. In the final scene I was struck by the confident and sturdy playing, effortless changing from one contrasting mood to another. Petitgirard, after a gradual build-up at 2:50-3:51 (track 11), emphasises the wild and voluptuous nature of the dizzily swirling bacchanalian dance that provides a wonderful conclusion to the score.

When selecting a complete account of this ballet the deliciously dramatic performance from Pierre Monteux with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Chorus of the Royal Opera House on Decca goes straight to the very top rank of recommended versions. Monteux and his players prove to be in superb form providing sumptuous playing in familiar music for which they clearly have a great affection. The sound quality of this re-issue I found vivid and well balanced, belying its near fifty years. It has been reported to me that listening tests do not show any obvious difference in sound quality between this Monteux re-issue and its original CD release. Undoubtedly this was a very special Kingsway Hall recording session, from the spring of 1959, that caught Monteux’s crack London orchestra in their most inspired form, fully validating its selection as one of their recently re-issued ‘Legendary Recording’ series on Decca ‘The Originals’ 475 7525. The couplings of the Rapsodie espagnole and Pavane add to the desirability of this magnificent disc.

Close behind Monteux on Decca is the evergreen 1950s account from Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on RCA 09026 61846-2. Munch and his Boston players are in tremendous form offering an electrifying performance that is vitally dramatic and sharply coloured. The recording is one of the legendary RCA Living Stereo series and has been remastered and re-issued on a hybrid SACD 82876-61388-2.

The recently released 2004 Paris account from Myung-Whun Chung and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France on Deutsche Grammophon 477 5706 does not inspire. Although the disc has been well received in some quarters I can find nothing remarkable here. Chung’s warmly recorded performance disappoints and pales greatly by comparison with Monteux on Decca and Munch on RCA. The reading from Chung lacks passion and vitality, his chosen tempos seem far too slow and he is never a serious contender as a recommended version.

There is plenty to enjoy here on this excellently performed and recorded Naxos release. Keith Anderson provides fine documentation, however, many friends have commented that the small type is getting really difficult to read. Recorded in 2002 at the Franklin Hall in Bordeaux the engineers have supplied warm, vivid and well balanced sound quality. Conductor, orchestra and chorus may be unfamiliar names to many but don’t be put off. They make beautiful music and prove more than a match for many of the better known competition in this score, such as: Dutoit on Decca; Nagano on Erato; Rattle on EMI Classics; Tortelier on Chandos and Ozawa on Deutsche Grammophon Entrée.

This superb Naxos release will sit comfortably on the shelf alongside my treasured versions from Monteux on Decca and Munch on RCA.

Michael Cookson


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