Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé - Suite No. 2 (1912) [15:51]
Valses nobles et sentimentales (1912) [16:42]
La Valse (1920) [12:27]
Ma Mère l’Oye - Suite (1911) [17:01]
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. Doelen Hall, Rotterdam, June 2007
EMI CLASSICS 9663422 [62:02]

I’ve been listening to this disc at the same time as the reissued EMI double album of Ravel and Debussy conducted by Jean Martinon. The two share not only some repertoire but also the theme of Ravel and the dance.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the superb Rotterdam orchestra - of which he became the Music Director some months after these recordings were made - certainly have the measure of the second suite from Daphnis et Chloé. The opening pages, the famous “Daybreak” sequence, are characterised by a subtle control of pulse, with the twittering of the birds and the rising, sequential melody not always agreeing as to exactly where the first beat of the bar falls. The effect is marvellously atmospheric. Throughout this passage the conductor seems to be of a mind with Martinon, more interested in clarity and transparency of texture than in sumptuous sound for its own sake. It’s certainly a valid way of playing this music, but something of the rapture is lost. That said, Nézet-Séguin signals the moment when the two lovers fall into each other’s arms [3:36] by a more marked surge in tempo than we are used to. The climaxes are superbly handled, but the timpani are too loud for my taste in the final climax of all. The principal flute plays the long solo in the second passage with a fair amount of rhythmic freedom, suggesting that the conductor treats the player as a soloist and accompanies accordingly. This is very successful. The index point for the third section, Danse générale is strangely placed, falling at a point where the dance is already underway. This is very fast and efficient but to my ears lacks some excitement, due, I think, to want of contrast and a rather unvaried way with strong accents.

I have loved Ravel’s music since my school days, yet have never quite got into Valses nobles et sentimentales. Few composers were more successful at hiding their real feelings, their human side, than Ravel. At least this is what I think when I’m not wondering if Ravel didn’t really have much in the way of a human side: people, after all, rarely feature in his works. The mask slips from time to time, but rarely in the Valses nobles. There is a moment in the fifth waltz, I think, where it happens, and another, even more short-lived, in the seventh. But quite what this music means in human terms, what it is about - and I’m convinced that the question is a valid one - is almost impossible to discern. Nézet-Séguin’s is a fine performance, carefully paced to give an illusion of unity, yet with all the necessary contrast. Boulez, at a similar tempo, sounds less rushed in the first waltz, but the second is beautifully wistful here, and the quiet, mysterious close is superbly controlled.

Pierre Monteux, on a Philips disc, provides as satisfying a performance of the complete ballet Ma Mère l’Oye as one could wish for, magically evoking Ravel’s idea of the world of childhood. Nézet-Séguin prefers the Suite, as I also do, and his performance is a fine one without toppling Monteux from his pedestal. The opening Pavane is nicely classical in feel and Tom Thumb’s birds chirrup more convincingly than I have ever heard them. There is also some exquisite storytelling from the wind soloists. The Chinese tableau is taken briskly, too briskly in my view, missing some of the charm, but most conductors do this so I must be the one out of step. Beauty and the Beast come to terms with each other as best they can after what seems again to be a rather brisk waltz. The double-bassoon characterises the Beast rather well, I think, but it’s a pity the player is not more forwardly balanced when the two themes are heard simultaneously. Martinon, at this point, arguably goes too far in the other direction. The closing scene in the fairy garden is nicely done, the strings sumptuous and the final crescendo very well managed. The upfront playing of the string soloists rather destroys the magic to my ears; Monteux coaxes a better response from his players at that point. The timpani are again too loud in the final bars. Two production matters need to be raised. The order of the movements as listed in the booklet is wrong, though the timings are correct. Then there is a fair amount of extraneous noise in one of the movements, prompting suggestions that it tells the story of Tom Thump. There are also some rather strange clicks in the final movement, though this is less troublesome and in any event these noises will probably only bother those who are obliged, or prefer, to listen through headphones.

Comparing Nézet-Séguin’s performance of La Valse with Martinon’s has been particularly interesting. Nézet-Séguin plays the work straighter than Martinon, with less variety of tempo and pulse, and his few gear changes seem more natural and organically convincing than those of the older conductor. It’s a fine performance, too, with a particularly striking moment where the solo strings sound very authentically Viennese without losing sight of the fact that this is Vienna seen through the eyes of a quite unusual Frenchman, no mean feat of orchestral alchemy. The end of the work is brilliantly played, the sound much more under control than with Martinon, but quite lacking in that horrifying wildness that should be present in these pages, leaving one a little unsatisfied. Martinon’s performance, then, is a bit rough round the edges, whereas Nézet-Séguin’s is more disciplined and seductive. But neither performance can hold a candle to that of Pierre Monteux who, on that same Philips disc recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra less than six months before he died in 1964, shaves almost a minute off the timing of each of the later performances. He presides over the musicians with a baleful stare, moving the music relentlessly on to its inevitable, horrifying close.

William Hedley