Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Daphnis et Chloé (1912) [56:23]

Boléro (1928) [14:56]
La Valse (1920) [12:27]
Ma Mère l’Oye (1908-12) [28:54]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Jeux (1913) [18:15]
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) [10:31]

Chorus of the Paris Opera

Orchestre de Paris (Ravel); Orchestre National de l’ORTF/Jean Martinon

rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, July-November 1974 (Ravel) and February, March, June and September 1973 and January and April 1974 (Debussy)
EMI CLASSICS 9 67734 [71:26 + 70:40]
“Debussy – Ravel: Ballets” is what is written on the side of the CD case. It is one of those two-CD compilations at which EMI are getting very expert. I reviewed recently another Ravel volume, as well as one of works by Janácek, and a glance at the catalogue or any EMI advertisement will reveal many other issues of this kind. They often draw on wide-ranging sources; usually very well-planned. Most of the issues I have come across are highly desirable. For established collectors there is the irritating chance that one or more of the performances will be duplicates. For this reason I think this kind of issue is of most interest to beginners or at any rate, younger purchasers.
The discs under review gather together six performances from the extensive series of Ravel and Debussy recordings made in the 1970s by the fine French conductor, Jean Martinon. Perhaps the other performances will appear in due course, but since this collection centres around the theme of ballet, it doesn’t feel like the first instalment of a comprehensive Martinon reissue.
Martinon’s reading of Daphnis et Chloé with the Orchestre de Paris was particularly well received when it was first issued and remains one of the finest available to this day. Ravel referred to the work as a “choreographic symphony in three parts”, and Martinon makes a particularly good case for seeing the work in this light. The cumulative effect is powerful, to the extent that Part 3, better known as Suite No. 2, comes over as the natural culmination of all that has gone before. Martinon is uninterested in surface brilliance, preferring a certain sobriety, even what we might think of as Gallic detachment. This is not to say that the performance is unexciting, but that one is more aware than usual of the seriousness of the score and of its overall structure. In spite of this, he never lets us forget that the music was originally conceived for the dance. His control of rhythm and pacing is immaculate, fleet-footed even in the most powerful passages, never leaden or heavy. The orchestra plays magnificently well, and the chorus, whose music must be amongst the most ungrateful in the repertoire – arguably more gratifying to sing, though, than the music for the women’s chorus in the last of Holst’s Planets – is, like many French choirs of the period, very characteristic in sound and pretty much in tune pretty well most of the time. The famous sunrise scene is magnificently done, immensely subtle in terms of orchestral sound and balance, though without a trace of romantic excess.
There is nothing particularly distinctive about Martinon’s Boléro. The Orchestre de Paris still sounded quite French in 1974, though the movement away from that very particular French woodwind sound was already well under way. Martinon keeps firm control of tempo whilst at the same time achieving the rather remarkable feat of screwing up the tension in such a way that you think the music is faster at the end that it was at the beginning. The trombonist could, I think, have injected a little more swing into the glissandi in his solo. The opening of La Valse is superb, mysterious and menacing, with the waltz rhythms, when they emerge from the depths, languid and lazy. The performance doesn’t really live up to this early promise, however. There is some rather sour wind tuning at times, and some odd balances too, with the trumpets sounding at one point as though they are playing from the next room. Then there are some oddly literal – and not necessarily very accurate – percussion taps a couple of minutes from the end. Martinon’s way with the piece brings with it a fair variety of tempo and pulse, searching for authentic Viennese flavour without, I think, quite finding it. The ending is noisy but there’s little excitement there; it should be horrifying, but it’s just a racket really. La Valse is a masterpiece, though not everybody would say so. Many conductors have the measure of it on record, but none more so, in all the performances I have heard, than Pierre Monteux with the London Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1964.
I love the five-movement piano-duet version of Ma Mère l’Oye, as I also do its orchestral guise. When Ravel adapted it for the ballet he added a prelude, an extra dance – the Dance of the Spinning-Wheel – and some short interludes. There are some lovely sounds in these extra pieces, and Ravel cleverly anticipates the movements to come, but I’ve never taken to it in the same way as the original suite. I think the interludes break the mood and in any case the added music is just not of the same magical quality as the five original pieces. Martinon gives a fine performance of the ballet version, quite restrained and cool for much of its length, but well played and convincing. I wish he’d asked the orchestra to play a bit more quietly for a bit more of the time, and some passages, Laideronnette, for example, seem somewhat rushed. The crescendo at the end of the work is finely controlled, but overall I find this reading lacking a little in magic.
Debussy’s short tone-poem, incorrectly named “L’Après-midi d’un faune” on the accompanying material, is only here because Diaghilev decided to mount it as a ballet some eighteen years after its composition. We tend to forget its revolutionary nature now, but it was truly surprising, shocking even, to contemporary audiences. This performance shows signs of scrupulous preparation and masterly direction. Orchestral balance is impeccable, with some harmonic and instrumental clashes made more evident than usual, in one or two cases bringing out features I had never heard before. The orchestral sound in general has an unexpected opulence about it, and the fully scored chords in the early minutes of the piece sound ravishing. The conductor’s pacing is masterly, underlining the apparent absence of pulse for much of the work, and he establishes a powerful atmosphere of heat and indolence, making the faun’s erotic reveries all the more credible. This is an outstanding performance of a well-known work we tend to take for granted.
I’ve never been able to come to terms with Jeux. In spite of several sumptuous moments, not to mention orchestral writing of the utmost brilliance, the music never seems to get going, nor indeed to arrive anywhere. The notes refer to “21 short motifs”, so maybe that’s my problem, a poor reaction to a work with little in the way of extended melody. I’ve never seen it in the theatre, mind, and perhaps I should, but then I’ve never really come to terms with ballet either. This performance came as close to convincing me as any ever has. I think it is at least partly to do with the actual sound of the orchestra of which Martinon had been Chief Conductor for some five years: textures are clean and crisp, with light passing through them, surely as the composer intended. The pacing seems right too (the scenario centres around a game of tennis.) Bernstein seems overwrought in this music, but Haitink’s celebrated reading is very fine. Otherwise, until this performance arrived, whenever I felt like having another go with this work I tended to turn to Serge Baudo on EMI. I think Martinon will be my mentor from now on.
William Hedley
A good basic collection, with three outstanding performances … see Full Review