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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] 

Recordings of Ravel’s complete ballet are quite rare. You are more likely to know the music through the two suites which Ravel compiled some years later. Of these the second uses all of the music from Part 3 of the ballet. There are three parts to this hour long ballet. There are nine scenes in total. The music, more or less, plays without a break.

The story tells of the lovers Daphnis and Chloe in what is known as the Graeco-Roman romance by the 2nd century poet Longus. The setting is the Isle of Lesbos where the couple face various misfortunes. These include Chloe’s abduction by pirates in scene IV only to be re-united with Daphnis in a joyous 5/4 time ‘Bacchanale’ in the final scene. 

In his notes Keith Anderson writes that Ravel saw the story “through the prism of Amyot’s sixteenth century French translation of Longus and the pastoral conventions of the eighteenth century as imagined with a certain nostalgia ... by Verlaine, Mallarmé and others.” For myself I listened to some of this music whilst looking at paintings by Claude Lorraine (1600-1682) whose evocative work is set in Roman - or is it Greek - countryside with mythological figures cavorting in the fields and hills. These are idealized images and, for their time, also quite Romantic. The lighting is magical in these pictures as is the enchanting opening of the ballet a ‘danse réligieuse’. I was reminded of Claude’s National Gallery picture ‘The Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah’. And whilst listening to the justly famous ‘Lever du jour’, which opens scene three, I was reminded of the sunrise in the ‘Landscape with Parnassus’, with its flecks of rosy clouds and advancing birdsong.

The sets for the first production were designed by Leon Bakst, and one of these is illustrated on the booklet cover. Claude and indeed Watteau are not far away in this secret and yet brightly open landscape. How perfect this is for a composer of Ravel’s sensibilities. He was ever open to the natural world with a personal sense of how to express it through his remarkably beautiful, sparking, clear and masterly orchestration.

It’s extraordinary to think that the ballet received only two performances at its first production in Paris in 1912. Of course it came out just before ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’ and indeed in the same season as Diaghilev’s presentation of Debussy’s ‘Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune’, considered to be at the time indecent and erotic. But there were other factors behind this cool initial reception. Michel Fokine had been in charge of the choreography and had a complex disagreement with Diaghilev about his relationship with Nijinsky. The former then angled to give Daphnis only a few performance opportunities, much to the great sadness of Ravel who had, after all, written what was probably his masterpiece. Later, under Monteux, the work proved to be a great success. 

Well, Laurent Petitgirard is no Monteux but what has he to say about this work? I recently encountered him as a composer in a particularly impressive ‘Poème’ for string orchestra. Some of his music is available on Naxos. Here he brings a composer’s ear to this large-scale ballet. He paces himself in the knowledge that he is recording the entire thing, producing a symphonic flow which captivates from start to finish instead of an episodic sense of scenes and storylines.

Having said that, the down-side is that some sections lack what I can best describe as ‘atmosphere’. This is especially so in the famous ‘Lever du jour’ and in the second scene ‘Les jeunes filles attirent Daphnis’. I probably can’t blame this very fine orchestra and I can’t blame the generally really pleasing recording. In the end it has to come down to the conductor’s approach. 

The recording is rather a nuisance in one respect. Although the balance between the excellent Bordeaux opera chorus and the orchestra is just right, in the quiet passages, as for instance at the very start, one must put the volume up. In the louder passages the volume has to be turned down and seem a little crowded and overloaded. I tried out these sections on three different stereo systems and felt the same each time. Still it’s only a small point. I wouldn’t want to put you off buying this disc although I am reliably informed that the Charles Munch classic recording on RCA (82876613882) is still in the catalogue and is by most accounts highly recommendable. 

The CD booklet is highly detailed giving the story behind the work’s creation and most helpfully runs through the scenic action track by track. 

Gary Higginson

see also Review by Michael Cookson



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