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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
CD 1
Bolero (1928) [16.10]
Piano Concerto in G major (1931) [21.50]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1910) [6.32]
Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No. 2 (1913) [17.39]
Alborada del gracioso ( 1918) [8.31]
CD 2
Ma mère l’Oye – Suite (1911) [16.23]
Introduction and Allegro for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet (1905) [10.38]
Gaspard de la Nuit (1908) [21.14]
Shéhérazade (1903) [16.37]
La Valse (1920)  [12.33]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan (Bolero)
rec. Philharmonie, Berlin, January 1977
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Ettore Gracis (Piano Concerto)
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, February 1957
Orchestre de Paris/Jean Martinon (Pavane)
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, November 1974
Orchestre de Paris/Charles Munch (Daphnis)
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, July, October 1968
Orchestre de Paris/Herbert von Karajan (Alborada)
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, June 1971
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse/Michel Plasson (Ma mère l’Oye, La Valse)
rec. Halle aux Grains, Toulouse, July 1986
Melos Ensemble (Introduction and Allegro)
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, July 1967
Andrei Gavrilov (piano) (Gaspard)
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, July 1977
Janet Baker (mezzo); New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, December 1967
[71.00 + 77.57] 


Experience Classicsonline

Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, in its original version for piano, was composed in 1899. The Piano Concerto in G major, completed in 1931, was almost his final work. This collection therefore spans almost his entire creative life, and may thus be seen as a comprehensive introduction to the composer.

Karajan’s Berlin performance of Bolero also appears in a remarkable EMI collection of sixteen CDs entitled Twentieth-Century Masterpieces, a review of which will appear shortly. It is one of the few duds in that collection, and I feel no differently having listened to it again for this review. The opening flute solo is so languorous that it might be Debussy’s faun wandering in, and the super-refined, homogenised sound of the rest of the winds fatally undermines Ravel’s meticulous control of colour. The reading doesn’t grow, and there is no shock at the short-lived change of key just before the end. One longs for something less comfortable and plush.

Michelangeli’s G major Concerto is a classic of the gramophone and most Ravel collectors will already own it. Not having heard it for many years I was pleased to be reminded of its qualities. The playing is magnificent, limpid and mercurial by turns, the pianist nonetheless retaining a coolness, a certain magisterial distance not at all at odds with the composer. The sound is showing its age and the unsynchronised hands in the slow movement bring to the reading a dated feel too, but the orchestral playing is generally very fine – a particularly touching cor anglais solo in the slow movement – and the understanding between soloist and conductor is exemplary. It would be a pity, though, to buy this collection and then be discouraged from acquiring the original disc – now available in the Great Recordings of the Century series – on which the Ravel is coupled with an even finer reading of Rachmaninov’s Fourth Concerto.

A similar coolness, though without the distance, is maintained in Jean Martinon’s beautiful performance of the Pavane. Certain of the wind soloists sound so French that one might have thought the recording to be of an earlier vintage. The same orchestra sounds just as French for their founder-conductor, Charles Munch, in the second suite from Daphnis and Chloé. This is a fine performance on its own terms, and one which will not disappoint, but others have found more rapture in the birdsong-filled daybreak of the first tableau, and more delirious excitement in the final dance. Notable amongst these, and the compiler might conceivably have chosen it, contractual considerations permitting, is Guido Cantelli’s performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra, recorded by the same company in the mid-1950s, and last seen on Testament.

I listened to Alborada del gracioso assuming that Karajan was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. When I read that it was, in fact, the Orchestre de Paris once again, I was so surprised that I returned to it straight away, fearing that my reaction might be based more on prejudice than on serious analytical listening. But no: by some sort of alchemy, Karajan managed to transform the French orchestra into something resembling himself for these sessions. There is about the performance a feeling of luxury casting. Everything is brilliantly played, but little of the irony or the darkness of Ravel’s vision seems to find its way into the mix, and even less, it had to be said, of any Spanish feel.

Another orchestra which has lost – or is losing – its own, particularly French sound, is my local one, the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra. In a story rather like that of Barbirolli and the Hallé, the orchestra was more or less created by Michel Plasson, and achieved under his direction a very high standard indeed. After his departure it was without a permanent director for some time, but now, under Tughan Sokhiev it is playing better than ever. There is excitement in the air in Toulouse just now, and fire in the playing, but the sound has been transformed, and I find that a pity. Sadly, the two Plasson performances in this collection are both disappointing. He is a very expressive conductor, so it is not surprising to hear him broadening the tempo for the short, lush violin passage in the Tom Thumb scene from Mother Goose, nor when the main theme returns just before the end of the final movement, The Enchanted Garden. In truth, though, he is too free with tempo and pulse, too ready to pull back and enjoy the moment at the expense of the longer view, and the reading as a whole is short on charm and magic. Even so, he seems relatively restrained here, at least in comparison with his reading of La Valse, where he misses no opportunity to pull the tempo about unmercifully, often to quite crude effect. I imagine his aim is to bring out the grotesquery of the piece, but Ravel’s music doesn’t need that kind of  help and the conductor only succeeds in getting in the way. The musicians seem to be going through the motions in two scores they must know almost off by heart.

The Melos Ensemble recorded Ravel’s exquisite Introduction and Allegro for L’Oiseau-Lyre in 1961, on an LP which has graced countless French music collections since then and ever since. This performance dates from 1967, and Osian Ellis was once again the harpist. There is nothing to choose between the two performances: they are both absolutely marvellous.

Andrei Gavrilov’s Gaspard de la Nuit was first released coupled with his performances of Ravel’s two concertos conducted by Simon Rattle. I never heard that disc, but this Gaspard makes me want to seek it out. It is positively sulphurous in the virtuoso passages, the climactic bars of Scarbo bringing playing of quite extraordinary power. I don’t think I have ever heard Le Gibet quite so gloomy as this: one almost shivers at the hopelessness of it all. I checked on Martha Argerich (DG) as a comparison, and found Gavrilov to be fully her equal. I’m not sure that I don’t even prefer his reading.

And then there is Shéhérazade, the one Janet Baker performance from the 1960s which featured in my student LP collection and which I have never acquired on CD. And what a pleasure it is to hear this performance again! Accepted wisdom, then as now, was that Régine Crespin was supreme in this work. Well, maybe. But Baker is wonderful, all breathless impetuosity one minute, rapt contemplation the next. Listen to how she floats her top G flat, pianissimo, on the word “Asie” about a minute into the first song, and all this without a mention of that glorious voice, so instantly recognisable and always used with such intelligence and good musical and dramatic sense. As for the accompaniment, Barbirolli is, as always, wonderfully at one with his soloist, affectionate and convincing. Ansermet, for Crespin, is only efficient by comparison.

William Hedley



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