Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé, complete ballet [56:49]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune [11:08]
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo/Yakov Kreizberg
rec. 2-3 April, 2 June, 13-14 July 2010, Auditorium Rainier III, Monaco (orchestra); 1-2 July 2010, Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin, Germany (choir)
OPMC CLASSICS 002 [67:57]

Yakov Kreizberg’s death this year was far too early, at the age of fifty-one, and caught by surprise everyone who was unaware of his illness. That was nearly everybody since, as his wife Amy rather angrily pointed out in response to a Telegraph obituary, the Kreizbergs kept the name and nature of his illness private. It took away from us an immensely talented conductor who, for PentaTone, had recorded nearly everything from Johann Strauss to Shostakovich and done it all very well (his Shostakovich Fifth is my favorite: not a second paced wrongly, and a gut-wrenching finale). The Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo had just formed its own record label to preserve on disc their partnership with Kreizberg, which, according to the booklet, he planned to lead on tour “to major musical centers throughout Germany and Spain, as well as to Russia.” There is a certain very sad poignancy to the fact that this new release is blissfully unaware of its conductor’s passing.

Listening only confirms what we knew all along: that Kreizberg is a superb conductor who gets the best from his players. The opening scene of Daphnis et Chloé is as warm as it’s ever been, the war dance manages to be both spirited and balletic, and we are treated to a luxuriously slow sunrise, six-and-a-half minutes long but not sagging for a moment. The most impressive sections, though, are those usually fairly anonymous transitional passages near the end of part one: Kreizberg finds exactly the right tempo to get through these without bogging down the ballet. A lot of recordings (not the greats, like Boulez/DG, but the near-greats) allow your mind to wander in scenes like the “danse lente et mystérieuse” as Ravel’s inspiration falls from the exalted level of the first six numbers. That is certainly not the case here: indeed the dance cited is one of the most exquisite moments on the disc. I also find much to admire in the woodwinds: the extensive solos so well-dispatched in the violent war dance, the marvelous flute work in part III.

If I have any quibble, it is the not-quite-perfect sound of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo; the ensemble is rather string-light. True, there’s a lot of great stuff going on in the woodwinds, but the climaxes often sound a bit like a wind band’s. (Exception: the vivid double-bass part immediately before the famous sunrise.) The choir is the Rundfunkchor Berlin, recorded in Germany on separate days and added to the mix by the engineers; I hate to say it, but there are two tiny, momentary flashes of realization that the orchestra and choir were recorded separately: immediately before the war dance and before the sunrise one hears the singers betraying the slightest hesitation or stiltedness, as if they aren’t quite sure they will line up with the orchestra properly. The chorus is also balanced slightly too far forward on their very first appearance, just seconds into the work, and on their very last appearance, when they actually drown out the entire orchestra in the final bars.

Those blemishes are not enough to prevent this from being a moving memorial to a conductor who died far too young. Boulez will remain my top choice, but this is a very good album: a well-paced, well-played Daphnis, very French, imperfect but wholly enjoyable, with a lovely bit of Debussy for dessert. If only we could ask Yakov Kreizberg for more.

Brian Reinhart

A very good album, very French; if only we could ask the late Kreizberg for more.