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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé (1910/1911) [55:49]
Shéhérazade, ouverture de féerie (1899) [15:33]
MDR Rundfunkchor/Howard Arman
Orchestre Nationale de Lyon/Jun Märkl
rec. 15-17 January, 11 February 2008 (Daphnis); 16-17 February 2008 (Shéhérazade), Auditorium de Lyon, France. DDD
NAXOS 8.570992 [71:37]
Experience Classicsonline

Daphnis et Chloé, Ravel's only full-length ballet, comes close to being his masterpiece in most people’s eyes. For me, however, La Valse and the D major Piano Concerto are the works which tower over his output. Written for, and first performed by, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1912, Daphnis is a rich and opulent score, full of the most beautiful and descriptive music which can stand quite easily without the visual aspect. Whilst it sounds gorgeous and is very easy on the ear, it’s a complicated piece to get to grips with. The music relies on leitmotifs for the characters and the music is always cross-referencing, so your ears have to be alert to all that is passing before them.

There have been many recordings over the years but none has superseded the one conducted by Pierre Monteux - who led the première - with the Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded in the superb acoustic of the Kingsway Hall in April 1959 (Decca 000624802).

Recently Märkl and his Lyon Orchestra have given us two disks of Debussy’s orchestral music - the second being especially impressive (Naxos 8.570993) - and so this disk promised much. I wasn’t disappointed. This is a very good performance of the score, very well recorded so every little detail can be heard, the balance between choir and orchestra is good and it’s a very enjoyable experience. Märkl really understands this music and moulds it to his vision, the orchestra willingly going with him and producing some excellent playing.

There are one or two important points I must make. The choir could be a little more seductive. It is rather heavy-handed, or should that be voiced, at times and therefore lacking in poetry which can be a distraction, such as in the famous Daybreak at the start of the final scene. However, in the unaccompanied section at the end of scene 1 there is some ravishing singing. Also, in a couple of places, such as the Brigands dance, which opens the second scene, the brass fails to make the requisite impact. This might be because the disk has a very wide dynamic range - the opening pages are so quiet as to be almost inaudible if played at your usual volume setting; turn it up and there’s a fine recording here. I wonder if the seating of the orchestra was such that the brass were placed too far from the microphones so that their contribution seems less immediate than the rest of the orchestra. It’s a small point for there is a marvellous presence to this recording and the performance is very good, if not in the inspired league of the aforementioned Monteux disk. No matter, at the price it’s well worth the outlay.

As a pleasing coupling we have the early, and quite delightful, fairy overture, Shéhérazade. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the great song-cycle of the same name from four years later. The brass balance is better here and the orchestra is totally at home in this music. That said, the overture shouldn’t appear after the climactic moment of Daphnis; it should have been placed at the start of the disk,

This is totally recommendable - especially at the price - but don’t be without the Monteux on any account.

Bob Briggs  

see also review by John-Pierre Joyce Recording of the Month - April


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