Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé is best
known to audiences through the two orchestral suites which the
composer arranged for concert performances. Of these, the second
suite has proved the most popular, with its inclusion of the
final three numbers of the ballet.
It is welcome news, therefore, to find a new
issue of the full-length ballet, including the parts for wordless
chorus, which are often omitted. This recording by the Orchestre
National de Lyon and the radio choir of the Mitteldeutscher
Rundfunk under Jun Märkel does full justice to Ravel’s lush
score. The playing is spot-on, while the chorus adds dramatic
depth to the Classical tale of separated lovers and godly intervention.
The piece starts off conventionally enough, but
by track 3 it is evident that Märkel and his players are guided
in their interpretation by the unfolding storyline – seeing
the piece much more as an active dance-drama rather than an
extended symphonic poem. We therefore feel the rivalries and
jealousies at work between Daphnis, Chloé and their admirers
in the first danse générale, with rhythmic, edgy interplay between
strings, harp and percussion. Further on, in track 5, the orchestra
eagerly plays Dorcon’s grotesque dance for laughs, as Daphnis’s
rival tries to impress Chloé with his ungainly moves.
The orchestra’s ability to evoke an eerie and
disturbing sound-world is also noticeable. The scene in which
the nymph statues come to life (track 8) is hauntingly beautiful,
while the god Pan’s appearance in track 12 is quite chilling.
The chorus adds real depth to the music. Their extended singing
during the scene change at the end of the first part of the
ballet (track 10) is rich and powerfully disturbing, punctuated
by strident and increasingly threatening brass calls.
Because of the popularity of Ravel’s second suite
of the ballet’s music, it is inevitable that the listener’s
attention will focus on the final three numbers (tracks 14 to
16). But here the Lyon forces do not disappoint. The morning
sunrise builds up amid twittering bird-calls, fluttering woodwind
and shimmering strings to a final orchestral blaze. The ensuing
dance where Daphnis and Chloé mime the story of Pan and Syrinx
is characterised by faultless flute playing and strong support
from pizzicato strings. The final danse générale keeps up an
urgent impetus, pushed on by the chorus. Although there is a
slight slackening of tempo part-way through, it quickly picks
up again and ends in a brilliant blaze of orchestral colour.
As a final filler, Märkel and the Orchestre National
de Lyon offer Ravel’s first orchestral work, the rarely played
‘fairy overture’ Shéhérazade. Composed while still a
pupil of Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire, Shéhérazade
is clearly not in the same league as Daphnis et Chloé,
but it provides interesting evidence of the composer’s later
orchestral mastery. The influence of the Russians (Rimsky-Korsakov,
Borodin and the like) is clear. But here, too, are shades of
Debussy, Szymanowski and even Bartók. The structure of the piece
is clumsy – blocks of themes that are weakly developed – but
the orchestra makes the most of the lush tonalities and exotic
melodies that make it such fascinating listening.