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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Alborada del gracioso (1905, 1918) [7:16]
Rapsodie espagnole (1907) [15:09] (Prélude à la nuit [4:22]; Malagueña [2:03]; Habañéra [2:26]; Feria [6:17])
Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911-12) [16:31]
La Valse (1919) [12:06]
Boléro (1928) [15:25]
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Jesús López-Cobos
rec. Music Hall, Cincinnati, 12-13 March 1988. DDD.
TELARC CLASSICS CD-80171 [66:49]

What’s your Desert Island Ravel?  For me it has to be the String Quartet, first heard on a beautiful summer evening in the Holywell Music Room in Oxford – the supposed venue for the Wagner recital which Inspector Morse never got to hear.  The very next morning found me in Blackwell’s Music Shop purchasing the Supraphon recording – the Vlach Quartet, I think – of the Debussy and Ravel quartets, which remained a staple of my collection, fizzy surfaces notwithstanding, for years afterwards and still available on CD until recently.  My current recommendation would be the version by the Belcea Quartet, their EMI Debut disc, on 5 74020 2 at super-bargain price.
I already owned a recording of Boléro but on a 45 rpm EP, which had to be turned over in midstream, thus destroying the “barely controlled, ever-mounting Latin emotion” which, to quote the Telarc booklet, is the essence of the piece.  For most people, I imagine, Boléro will be the selling-point of this reissue, hence the fact that it is emblazoned on the cover in a font more elaborate than and twice the size of anything else, including Ravel’s name.  Many will buy this CD on impulse, especially as the psychedelic background will lead them to expect a colourful performance.
The next thing the CD cover leads us to expect is a Hi-Fi experience – the gold sticker on the front of the case proclaims this in large letters, the back-of-case proclaims that all Telarc CDs are PURE DIGITAL! and the booklet warns that they “present an extraordinary challenge to all stereo systems … Damage could result to speakers or other components if the musical program is played back at excessively high levels.”  Beware of damaging £2,000+ of equipment, then!
The recording does, in fact, have a very wide dynamic range – not much use for playing in the car, where the soft passages would be drowned by road noise, unless you have a top-of-the-range limo, and the louder sections would seriously impair your driving, like the head-banging bass sounds one hears, usually emanating from black cars with heavily tinted windows.  With ironic inevitability, the moment I typed those words I was disturbed by just such a noise from a car in a traffic queue outside! Even in domestic situations it is hard to cope with such a wide range; most of us have neighbours to consider and, even with good loudspeakers, quieter passages lack presence if played at a lower volume. 
In fact, I played this CD on the systems in two different rooms and found that, while my normal playback volume was fine for the louder passages, the quieter moments tended to get lost and even slightly louder passages lacked impact.  Listening on headphones would do little to improve matters for anyone sensible enough to heed medical warnings about not using these at high volume-levels.  I’m not suggesting that Telarc should employ anything like the dynamic damping which makes Classicfm sound fine on the car radio but very limited in both FM and DAB formats on decent domestic equipment, but most record companies do manage to achieve a workable compromise.
As for any expectations that these performances would be as outrageously colourful as the cover implies, I found them sympathetic but, if anything, comparatively restrained – perhaps a little too much so in places.  La Valse receives a performance which emphasises the seductive, pseudo-Viennese elements and minimises the bitterness and harshness of the ending. It almost persuaded me to like this, my least-favourite Ravel piece, but others may think differently and wish for a greater sense of final cataclysm.  I first encountered La Valse as the filler to the Ace of Clubs LP version of Pictures at an Exhibition; perhaps I never really gave it a chance because I remember always hurrying to raise the arm before La Valse began.  The booklet notes seem to have been influenced by the comparative mellowness of Jesús López-Cobos’s interpretation, since they do not mention the usual assumption that Ravel intended the ending to mark the destruction and disintegration of the old order which the First World War had caused. 
This performance made me think that perhaps other conductors overdo the ending: after all, Ravel (quoted in the booklet) merely referred to the light of chandeliers bursting forth.  But then I listened again to Eduardo Mata’s versions (details below) where things really do fly apart at the end, though he takes slightly longer for the piece overall than López-Cobos – 12:22 against 12:06 – and was convinced again that this is the way the piece should end, whether I like it or not. For more on La Valse, including the cataclysmic ending, see the notes on this website.
There is a logic to the order of the pieces on this recording in that they are played in chronological order and the CD ends with the climax of Boléro – more appropriate than the Mata, where Alborada ends the CD – but it might well have been better to have disrupted the order and avoided following La Valse with Boléro. The opening of Boléro is an example of sound on the threshold of hearing at normal playback volume, which is fine as I sit in my study writing this review, with a system and speakers which can cope with a wide volume range and a small room where the soft sounds can be heard, but less so in the lounge where slightly less sensitive speakers and the larger volume of space are less kind.  The trick of performing Boléro is to get the tempo just right from the very beginning; whereas Paavo Järvi on another Telarc Ravel CD and Mata on RCA are slightly faster than the crotchet = 72 marked in the printed score, López-Cobos here is just slightly too slow for his performance to work for me. Boléro is essentially tosh, so it might as well sound like exciting tosh though López-Cobos is close to the tempo of Ravel’s own recording and arguably true to the direction moderato assai.  In the manuscript score, 76 is crossed through and 66 substituted.  Scores in pdf format of all the works on this disc except Alborada are available.
Alternative recommendations?  No single CD currently offers all the music here but there is a 2-CD set which contains all these items and more. Though in re-mastered analogue sound, it is perhaps easier to live with in terms of dynamic range than this Telarc and costs only slightly more (Martinon on EMI Gemini 4 76960-2). Reviewing these performances as part of an 8-CD Debussy/Ravel collection on this website in January 2003, Rob Barnett wrote “if you were to start your Ravel and Debussy collection here you would have been fortunate indeed.”  That complete set is still available on 5 75526 2: anyone buying it would also get a fine complete Daphnis and Chloë  and some very good Debussy recordings. 
My only reservation is that Martinon’s Daphnis is not quite the equal of my personal favourite, the Monteux version, on Decca 475 7525 in the latest of its many reincarnations, with an excellent coupling of Rapsodie espagnole and Pavane pour une Infante défunte.  Comparing Monteux’s version of Rapsodie with that on the Telarc disc is largely in favour of the Decca: a rather more robust interpretation without being in any way insensitive. It’s from a 1961 recording which hardly shows its age, apart from slight tape hiss when heard on headphones on my copy of its penultimate appearance.
Those requiring a single bargain-price disc could do much worse than with another American Orchestra and Hispanic conductor, the Dallas Symphony under Eduardo Mata on RCA Sound Dimension 74321 68015 2. It contains the same items as the Telarc but substituting Le Tombeau de Couperin, which many will prefer, for Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and selling in the UK for slightly less than the Telarc.  Mata polishes off Boléro, with a rip-roaring conclusion, in 14:49 against López-Cobos’s 15:25. His timings for the individual sections of Rapsodie are more in line with those of Monteux: they both take 4:06 for the opening Prélude à la nuit without sounding hurried, whereas López-Cobos takes 4:22.  The concluding section, Feria, receives a particularly rousing performance; it is, after all, meant to represent a festival. There is little to choose between the Telarc and RCA versions of Alborada.  The RCA recording, though analogue, is very good, too; easier to live with than the Telarc.  There is also a recommendable European Eloquence CD offering similar repertoire, this time with the Pavane instead of Alborada - Boston SO/Seiji Ozawa on 469 628-2 - and there are some other permutations of Ozawa’s Ravel recordings on three Australian Eloquence CDs.
Though designed to sell in the UK at bargain price, the Telarc comes with a booklet of useful and informative notes.  I haven’t seen the presentation of the Mata in its current format but in its previous life on RCA Silver Seal it contained no notes at all.  The European Eloquence series are also devoid of notes.  I certainly don’t wish to disparage the Telarc or to imply that the performances are lethargic.  Many will prefer the more thoughtful approach on this disc. Anyone who buys it on impulse will have a set of notes to find their way around the music and they will have some sympathetic performances to listen to, which may well lead them to explore Ravel further.  The next stop could be the Monteux Daphnis and Chloë then, perhaps, the String Quartet.
Brian Wilson


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