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Rob Barnett
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John Quinn
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Jonathan Woolf
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alternatively Crotchet

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Boléro (1928) [14.56]
Shéhérazade: Ouverture de féerie (1903) [13.47]
Rapsodie espagnole (1907) [16.06]
Menuet antique (1909) [6.19]
La Valse (1920) [12.35]
Ma Mère l’Oye (1908) [36.44]
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917) [17.56]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899) [6.32]
Alborada del gracioso (1905) [7.53]
Une Barque sur l’océan (1905) [7.18]
Daphnis et Chloé (1912) [56.25]
Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911) [16.35]
Marcel Gallègue (trombone) (Boléro)
André Sennedat (bassoon) (Alborada)
Michel Garcin-Marrou (horn) (Pavane)
Choeurs du Théâtre National de l’Opéra
Orchestre de Paris/Jean Martinon
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, July–October 1974, DDD
EMI CLASSICS TRIPLE 5008922 [3 CDs: 63:23 + 76.23 + 73.00]

When Pathé-EMI recorded their well-nigh comprehensive Debussy and Ravel series in Paris in 1973 and 1974 little did they think that these readings would have had such a long and commercially bountiful shelf-life. The investment has been repaid many times over. I lose track of the number of combinations in which these have been reissued over the years. Originally they appeared in two opulently decadent HMV SLS boxes (Ravel SLS 5016 and Debussy SLS 893; 5 LPs in each and weighing a ton). In the case of Ravel the set also included the two piano concertos and Tzigane. Each was adorned with a Bakst canvas. Swathes drawn from each set have appeared in various boxes: EMI double fortes CZS5 72667 2 and CZS5 72673-2 for Debussy and one Ravel CZS5 68610-2. No doubt French EMI have also issued the same tapes in many different guises and formats. Here the recordings put in yet another appearance and very welcome too. Their intrinsic artistic and technical faculties are completely intact.
Martinon's Ravel is joyously liberated. Atmosphere and the recreation of front-to-back and left-to-right depth continues to work as well as it did on the original black vinyls. Of course these were performances taken down onto analogue stock but aside from an unassertive tape hiss, only audible when you drive the loudspeakers really hard, there are no untoward results and nothing approaching distortion.
Martinon was born in 1910 in Lyon. He studied with d'Indy and Roussel playing the violin in the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. After further studies at the Sorbonne he worked with Munch and Désormière. In the Second World War he served with the French Army and was taken prisoner in 1940, spending two years in a POW camp escaping three times. While in captivity he wrote a symphony (the first of five), a motet Absolve domine in memory of French musicians who died in the war and a setting of Psalm 136 which became known as Chants des Captifs. Release in 1943 saw him appointed conductor of the Bordeaux orchestra and then, as assistant to Munch, at the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. He was principal conductor of the ORTF Orchestra from 1968 until his death. We tend to forget that the present recordings were made within a couple of years of Martinon's death in 1976 though they show no sign of palling imagination.  Martinon's elegance and sound technique were a byword in the profession. His interpretations are strong on clarity. He was mild of temperament and was not inclined to dive into the sort of blazing rows so relished by some conductors. To some degree he came to regret that he was so strongly associated with French music rather as Boult and Handley have been so tightly bound up with English music. Martinon hankered to conduct Mahler but death intervened.
I was brought up on Ravel drawn from the exported Gallic interpretations of Serge Baudo and Antonio Pedrotti with the Czech Philharmonic (Supraphon and Rediffusion LPs). I recall Baudo’s explosive Boléro and the pointilliste delicate poetry of Pedrotti’s Ma Mère l’Oye - a reading matched only twice since then - once in a unforgettable concert performance by Louis Frémaux (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Bristol’s Colston Hall circa 1974) and then in Monteux’s Philips recording - once issued on a Universo LP and now reissued on a ‘Philips 50 Original’ CD.
The playing for Martinon is hallmarked by tubby French brass and woodwind but the Boléro is stupendously raw and ultimately brash; lacking – thank heavens! - the limousine refinement of Karajan. The shimmer and tidal pull of the sea is clear from Barque sur l'océan with a Frank Bridge parallel at 1.45 (The Sea). In  the case of Ma Mère l’Oye I am not quite wooed away from the lovely Monteux recording but this is the complete ballet. The more I hear this work the more I regard it as a masterpiece of the gentlest beauty. In the case of Jardin Féerique this magic is coupled with the triumph of the carillon and richly-swept horn glissandi.
Alborada snaps and prattles away but the engineers noticeably pull back on the controls at 0.50 as the full orchestra enters. This leaches away some of the effect. Rapsodie receives a performance as ecstatic and yet as finely painted as you could want though again it does not supplant Monteux (Philips). The Shéhérazade - Ouverture de féerie is a very early work written when Ravel was only 24. It looks hopefully towards Rimsky and Balakirev yet leavens the mix with auguries of Ravel's maturity.
The recording of La Valse makes you aware how alive this is - bristling with directional information and life. Martinon breathes and blows on the silky drapes with a wayward warmth and a knowledge borne of years of experience. Every little gradation of dynamic is exploited and yet the conductor keeps up the pulse. It reels with a perfumed suggestion of delirium.
The Tombeau dates from the years of the Great War and was dedicated to six friends killed in action. The Rigaudon is notable for the way the dazzling trumpets ‘sit on top’ of the flibbertigibbet rhythmic spasm. The Pavane is a peaceful refuge. The Valses Nobles et Sentimentales is again rich with directional information and orchestral detail. The sound is warm and honeyed throughout and the performances are to match. The Daphnis has a wonderfully built Lever du Jour. This is playing soused in intoxicants, bathed in ecstatic abandon. Track 9 of Daphnis has a wind machine that makes a sympathetic zephyr-like breath rather than a Scott of the Antarctic bone-chill. At tr. 16 the evocation of dewy-leafage and birdsong rises and stretches to welcome a softened victorious dawn.
The booklet has full notes. These are  newly commissioned from Roger Nichols and are also translated into French and German.
Of course a life's mission will probably yield up better interpretations. The platitudinous caveat about boxed sets will apply but if you were to start your Ravel and Debussy collection here you would have been fortunate indeed. Personally I have a preference for Monteux in Ma Mère l'Oye and Pavane, for Fournet, Baudo and Pedrotti in various Czech-based interpretations of this territory, for Paray's Detroit recordings and some time ago Ozawa's Boston Ravel surprised me (agreeably) on a DG Panorama set. Tilson Thomas is also well worth hearing. An excellent budget alternative is on Vox with Skrowaczewski conducting the Minnesota Orchestra at about the same time as these Paris sessions. Others revere Boulez, Haitink and Karajan. However as a single Gallic cornerstone to your collection which you might leave as the only Ravel entry for years you can hardly better this.
Fortunate the collector who chances on this set; delight and revelation await. At bargain price this is a gift that will cast its smiling spell for years to come.
Rob Barnett


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