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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé (1912) [55:49]
Shéhérazade - ouverture de féerie (1899) [15:33]
MDR Rundfunkchor, Leipzig
Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkel
rec. Auditorium de Lyon, January-February 2008. DDD
NAXOS 8.570992 [71:37]
Experience Classicsonline


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.
John-Pierre Joyce


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