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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Alborada del gracioso [7:27]
Boléro [13:51]
Shéhérazade [17:00]
Une barque sur l’océan [7:45]
La valse [12:55]
Pavane pour une infante défunte [6:45]
Karine Deshayes (mezzo)
Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra/Emmanuel Krivine
rec. 6-10 September 2011, Grand Auditorium de la Philharmonie, Luxembourg
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La valse [12:16]
Ma mère l’oye (five pieces) [18:03]
Tzigane [9:20]
Boléro [16:33]
Pavane pour une infante défunte [6:25]
Gordan Nikolic (violin)
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlo Rizzi
rec. March-April 2012, Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam
TACET 207 [63:10]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Alborada del gracioso [7:35]
Pavane pour une infante défunte [6:37]
Rapsodie espagnole [15:04]
Pièce en forme de habanera (arr. Hoërée) [3:18]
Shéhérazade, Ouverture de féerie [13:02]
Menuet antique [6:43]
Boléro [15:18]
Jennifer Gilbert (violin)
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 2-3 September 2011, Auditorium de Lyon, France
NAXOS 8.572887 [68:19]
see also review by Michael Cookson

2012 was the 75th anniversary of Maurice Ravel’s death, so the Tacet, Zig-Zag and Naxos labels all began new cycles of his orchestral music. At least, I assume that’s the reason for this fascinating coincidence.
Volume 1 of each series is now upon us, and they have a few tracks in common. Which of these new entrants shall prevail? Let’s find out.
We begin with the two works featured on all three discs. Emmanuel Krivine (Zig-Zag), Carlo Rizzi (Tacet) and Leonard Slatkin (Naxos) all offer us Pavane pour une infante défunte and Boléro. Pavane first: I can’t say I’m too impressed by Slatkin’s, with a bland, weak horn solo, but its final moments are very pretty. Krivine offers a more closely miked horn section with a satisfyingly authentic, melancholy sound; where Slatkin’s violins lay on the rubato, Krivine’s don’t. Rizzi’s French horn gives the blattiest, least satisfying solo of all, but the rest is perfectly fine.
Rizzi’s Boléro clocks in at 16:43; Slatkin’s is 15:18; Krivine’s is 13:51. Obviously these are very, very different paces. If you like this piece better at a certain speed, take that into advisement. Rizzi’s Dutch woodwinds execute their solos with competence and clarity, but seventeen minutes gets to be a drag to me. Slatkin opens subtly, his double basses strike satisfyingly, and his woodwinds are on good form. I’m less convinced by the violins and the hollow final climax. Krivine has his wind soloists ever-so-gently bend the meter of the music. I’m not a fan of the clarinet, but that’s made up for by a soulful saxophone and the way the second snare drum enters precisely opposite the first in the sound picture. Plus, Krivine’s account is the only one where the arrival of the full orchestra feels rich, complete, sumptuous. As with Slatkin, I’m not totally convinced by the violins, but Krivine is the clear winner.
For La valse, we can choose between Rizzi and Krivine. Rizzi’s account is faster (12:24), and gloriously recorded with deeply resonant bass drums and more or less every instrument audible including bass clarinets … inner voices. Rizzi’s reading feels a little too dry and clinical, and the strings seem comparatively underpowered. The ending is exciting, but this is La valse, so of course it is; but the strings’ aside at 11:41-11:43 is sadly clipped. Krivine’s recording is more closely recorded but it’s more idiomatic too; his flexibility with tempo and dance rhythm result in moments of velvety beauty. He does have what sounds like a smaller orchestra, and one with occasional technical issues: a split in the violins, a missed cymbal crash. Despite the slower speeds, inaudible gong and defects in technique, Krivine’s ending is much better than Rizzi’s, with tastefully applied portamenti and a natural, exciting pulse.
For Alborado del gracioso, it’s Slatkin vs. Krivine. Slatkin’s harp has a piquant sound, although the central bassoon solo feels a little too slow. Overall the reading could use a little more pep in its step. Krivine is just seven seconds faster, but his bassoonist’s solo is more pliable and more individual in character, with nuances that make it feel improvised. Neither is first-class.
Now we’re down to the unique entries. Slatkin offers Rapsodie espagnole, Habanera, the Shéhérazade overture, and the Menuet antique. Krivine has Shéhérazade the song-cycle and Une barque sur le océan. Rizzi offers Tzigane and about half of the Mother Goose ballet.
Slatkin’s Rapsodie espagnole has won acclaim elsewhere, but I found it rather lifeless and uninspired. The rest of his collection is comparatively rare: the Shéhérazade overture, Menuet antique, and an orchestration of the Habanera by Arthur Hoërée. This is all done with competence, and concertmaster Jennifer Gilbert’s violin solo in Habanera adds a measure of soulfulness too. The booklet does not mention her role in the orchestra, nor will it tell you that you’ve heard of her brother Alan.
Karine Deshayes brings to Shéhérazade a mezzo voice of unusual lightness and clarity; its bright tone and her almost effortless technique make her singing feel unforced. She doesn’t quite have the gravitas of the darker-hued Julie Boulianne on Naxos, nor of past singers like Janet Baker, which makes your preference a matter of taste. Among recent singers Véronique Gens may well be the best of all.
Emmanuel Krivine’s Une barque is truly outstanding in every particular, the ocean swelling with unusual dynamism and mystery, the Luxembourg Philharmonic at its most luxurious and its most idiomatically French.
Rizzi, having lost the head-to-head match-ups, loses again here. There was room on the CD for all of Mother Goose, but we only get the “five pieces” suite. Gordan Nikolic does contribute a very idiomatically gypsy-style Tzigane, with rustic fiddling and great virtuosity but some scratchiness, the highlight of the album.
What lessons can we learn from all this? Rizzi has the best acoustic, and Slatkin the dullest, but in terms of interpretations, Rizzi’s at the bottom end of the pole, always competent but never especially engaging. His Boléro is too slow for me to handle. Emmanuel Krivine’s Ravel is not up to the inspired levels of, say, Jean Martinon or Pierre Boulez (DG), but his is certainly the finest of these new efforts. His conducting is the most pliable, engaged, romantic; his orchestra most embodies a seductive French sound. This may not be flawless Ravel, but it’s the project whose continuation I’ll most happily anticipate.
Brian Reinhart


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NAXOS 8.572887

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