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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé, Orchestral Suite No.1 (1909-12, suite arranged 1911) [11:47]
Daphnis et Chloé, Orchestral Suite No.2 (1909-12, suite arranged 1913) [15:58]
Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose) (1908-10, orchestrated 1911, expanded as ballet 1912) [27:04]
Boléro, ballet for orchestra (1928) [15:49]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Edo de Waart (Bolero)
rec. September 1971, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Holland (Haitink); December 1974, De Doelen, Rotterdam, Holland.
PENTATONE CLASSICS SACD PTC 5186 167 [70:29]


 


This Pentatone Classics recording contains three 1970s vintage recordings of Ravel’s most popular orchestral works. State-of-the-art multi-channel technology was used and the recordings have now been remastered for Super Audio CD. I have not been able to ascertain from the label if these recordings have been released previously.

In the 1970s Philips was pioneering analogue, multi-channel music reproduction, employing quadraphonic tapes (4-channel recordings) where stereo recordings were the norm elsewhere. I recall some quad LPs being released but the concept soon died away owing mainly to insufficient customer interest, differing formats and the lack of suitable playback systems. Now PentaTone Classics, who were a management buyout by three executives from Philips, have obtained some of the Philips back-catalogue, including the original quadraphonic tapes that they have remastered. A process called Direct Stream Digital has been used for conversion to hybrid Super Audio-CD (SACD) on the Remastered Quadro Recordings (RQR) series. We are told by PentaTone that the new standard allows for 5 fully fledged channels, plus a subwoofer channel, however for this RQR series a decision was made to release these early recordings in their original 4-channel version.

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

Ravel described Daphnis et Chloé as a "Symphonie Chorégraphique" though Diaghilev complained that it was more "Symphonique" than "Chorégraphique." At a playing time of around 55 to 60 minutes, the complete score is Ravel’s longest work. Ravel scored it for a large orchestra, including a wide variety of percussion, with a wordless mixed chorus, that can be heard both onstage and offstage.

Although Daphnis had been planned and written according to a "rigorous, tonal plan" as a "symphonic unity", Ravel extracted two concert suites from the complete score in 1911 and 1913. These he adorned with a huge orchestra employed in an extremely elegant fashion, producing incredible tone-colours. Ravel made the arrangements with only the minimum of changes from the full score: Orchestral Suite No.1: Nocturne; Interlude; Danse guerrière.
Orchestral Suite No.2: Lever du jour; Pantomime; Danse générale.

In the first Suite Haitink and his Amsterdam players provide a steamy atmosphere in the opening Nocturne and in the Danse guerrière (The warriors’ dance) one is struck by the high level of drama and the terrifying sound of the closing bars.

The more popular second Suite opens with a rapturous and opulent evocation of daybreak (Lever du jour). This magical representation is as beautiful and compelling as one is likely to hear. Haitink provides a highly attractive and convincing pastoral character to the central Pantomime. It is hard to decide who are in the finest form; the Concertgebouw woodwind or strings. The delightfully extended flute solo is remarkably affecting and deserves to be singled out for praise. In the voluptuous and colourful ending Danse générale (General dance) Haitink creates an ecstatic atmosphere. At 2:18 Haitink and his Royal Concertgebouw crank up the tension and excitement, expertly underlining the wild and pagan character of the swirling bacchanalian dance.

I thoroughly enjoyed Haitink’s reading from the Concertgebouw, however when selecting an account of the ballet I have to look towards recordings of the complete score. Top of my list of recommended versions is the deliciously dramatic performance from Pierre Monteux with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House on Decca. Monteux and his players prove to be in superb form providing sumptuous playing in music for which they clearly have great affection. The sound quality is vivid and well balanced; belying its near fifty years. It has been reported that informal 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: Rapsodie espagnole and Pavane add to the desirability of this magnificent disc.

Close behind Monteux on Decca is the evergreen 1950s account of the complete score from Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on RCA 09026 61846-2. Munch and his Bostonians 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. It has been remastered and re-issued on a hybrid SACD 82876-61388-2.

There is plenty to enjoy on the excellently performed and recorded release of the complete ballet from Laurent Petitgirard and his Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine and the Bordeaux Opera Chorus on Naxos 8.570075. Recorded in 2002 at the Franklin Hall in Bordeaux the engineers have supplied warm, vivid and well balanced sound quality. Laurent Petitgirard and his Bordeaux 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: Chung on Deutsche Grammophon; Dutoit on Decca; Nagano on Erato; Rattle on EMI Classics; Tortelier on Chandos and Ozawa on Deutsche Grammophon Entrée. The superb Naxos release from Petitgirard will sit comfortably on the shelf alongside my treasured versions from Monteux on Decca and Munch on RCA.

Ravel’s predilection for the worlds of childish themes and fairy-tales led to his writing Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose) between 1908-1910. Conceived as a five-part composition for piano duet based on tales from Mother Goose for the children of his friend Godebski. The score was orchestrated by Ravel in 1911 and expanded into a full ballet in 1912.

Haitink communicates a rather serious Danse du rouet that emphasises a martial character with the prominent use of brass. The Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty) represents the magical world of the enchanted forest and castle. It is performed with considerable excitement and great panache by Haitink and his Amsterdam players. Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête (Conversation of Beauty and the Beast) tells of the meeting between the Beauty and the Beast, who turns into a Prince. Here Haitink conveys a child-like texture to the scene that varies between the tender and the mysterious.

I especially enjoyed Haitink’s depiction of Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb) tentatively walking through the eerie whispering woods, bursting with twittering birds and roaring animals. Haitink and the Concertgebouw make it easy to picture a fairytale China in Laideronette, Impératrice des Pagodes (Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas). In the concluding section Haitink directs an uplifting, often spine-tingling evocation of the Le jardin féerique (Fairy garden).

This reading from Haitink and the Concertgebouw of Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose) is one of the finest I have heard. However, as a first choice I favour the highly dramatic performance of the complete ballet from Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Recorded at St. Eustache, Montreal in 1983 on the double set on Decca 460 214-2 (c/w La Valse; Pavane; Rapsodie Espagnole; Daphnis et Chloé Suite No.2).

The closing score on the release is Boléro - Ravel’s most popular work, although he was frequently disparaging about it stating, "I have written but one masterpiece: Bolero. Unfortunately, it does not contain any music." Commissioned by Ida Rubinstein and originally conceived as ballet music the Bolero was composed and first premiered in Paris in 1928.

Steeped in Spanish influence Boléro is constructed from a single, unwavering and prolonged ostinato phrase in C major that is allowed to grow to a triumphant orchestral climax. Throughout, the snare drum maintains the phrase in a steady almost hypnotic rhythm and is joined at regular intervals by orchestral instruments. Edo de Waart and his Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra perform the Boléro with complete confidence, conveying a swaggering Spanish character. The crescendo for full orchestra in the concluding measures is given an impressive ferocity from De Waart.

I have admired for some time the marvellously controlled version of Boléro from Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Recorded in St. Eustache, Montreal in 1981 on a Decca double 460 214-2 (c/w La Valse; Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose); Rapsodie Espagnole; Daphnis et Chloé Suite No.2).

I played this SACD on my standard unit and found the pleasing sound quality to be of a high standard. The essay from Franz Steiger is interesting but I would have preferred more detailed information of the actual scores.

With excellent performances and superb sound quality I would not be too displeased to have this disc as my only representation for these Ravel scores.

Michael Cookson

 


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