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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Orchestral Works - Vol. 1
Alborada del gracioso, (from Miroirs piano suite 1904-05, orch. 1918) [7:35]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899, orch. 1910) [6:37]
Rapsodie espagnole (1907/08) [15:04]
Pièce en forme de habañera* (Vocalise en forme de habañera for low voice and piano 1907, arr. violin and orchestra, Arthur Hoérée) [3:18]
Shéhérazade - Ouverture de féerie (1898) [13:02]
Menuet antique (1895, orch. 1929) [6:43]
Boléro (1928) [15:18]
Jennifer Gilbert (violin)*
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 2-3 September 2011, Auditorium de Lyon, France
NAXOS 8.572887 [67:37]

Leonard Slatkin began his tenure as music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon in the 2011-12 season. This disc, the first volume of a Ravel intégrale, is the inaugural recording of their partnership. Born in the Basque region of France close to the Spanish border Ravel wrote music much of which has an enduring popularity. He has done extremely well with recordings with lots of choice in the catalogue. Renowned for his prowess as an orchestrator Ravel’s music to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is probably his best known orchestral score.
I have been comparing these Slatkin versions with the outstanding 1981-82 double from the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal conducted by Charles Dutoit. It contains five of the seven works featured here and can be found on Decca 460 214-2. Slatkin and his Lyon players offer commendable performances but they cannot match Dutoit and his Montréal orchestra. The Naxos engineers have provided warm and relatively clear sound quality. For Dutoit at the St. Eustache, Montréal the Decca engineers excelled themselves securing bright and vividly clear sonics.
Ravel made his orchestration of Alborada del gracioso in 1918 for Diaghilev’s ballet Les jardins d'Aranjuez. My copy of a BBC Music Guide by L. Davies published in 1970 curiously ignores the Alborada del gracioso (Jester's Morning Serenade) which is a splendidly entertaining work. Slatkin underlines the tangy rhythms in writing that reflects the composer’s Basque heritage. Ravel certainly keeps the woodwind busy and the Lyon soloists play creditably. Dutoit finds additional zest and flavour through his orchestra’s seductive playing.
Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess) originated as a rather capricious salon piece for piano. Ravel went on to orchestrate it in 1910. The performance lacks Dutoit’s haunting tread.
TheRapsodie espagnole from 1907-08 was written as an orchestral concert piece. Cast in four movements the work is soused in Basque/Spanish orchestral colour. Under Slatkin’s baton the Prélude à la Nuit exudes nocturnal mystery and the Malagueña bakes under the Spanish sun. Whilst the sultry Habañera feels rather dreamy the brightly glowing Feria is alive with uplifting carnival atmosphere. Dutoit’s additional vibrancy in the Malagueña and a headier atmosphere in the Prélude à la Nuit and Habañera sections gives the edge to the Decca disc. In the Feria the rhythms from Dutoit are more pointed and convey an appealingly seductive coloration. 

The brief Pièce en forme de habañera originated as a Vocalise en forme de habañera for low wordless voice and piano in 1907. Over the years the score has been arranged for various combinations of instruments. On this release the score it is presented for violin and orchestra but the booklet notes say virtually nothing about the music. The Naxos website credits this arrangement for violin and orchestra to Arthur Hoérée. Concertmaster Jennifer Gilbert of the Lyon orchestra, a most sensitive violinist, is on fine form adding to the attractions of this warmly atmospheric piece.

Ravel’s first orchestral work is Shéhérazade - Ouverture de féerie composed in 1898. As the title suggests it was intended as an overture for a projected 1001 Nights opera of the same name. Slatkin’s build-up to the dramatic opening is impressive but in general this is all somewhat buttoned-up and cries out for more expression. The music to this ‘fairy’ overture is a touch overlong for its material and my attention kept wandering. Thankfully some splendid woodwind playing brightens up the proceedings. 

An early work for piano solo, the Menuet antique was written in 1895. Ravel must have thought highly of it as he returned to it over thirty years later in 1929 to prepare this orchestration. Described by Ravel as a “backward looking” piece the standard Classical form of the score reflects Ravel’s interest in music from an earlier period. TheMenuet antique places much emphasis on melody but is only modestly rhythmic. Slatkin turns out to be a sympathetic interpreter but again cannot compete with Dutoit’s positive response, enhanced flow and clarity.
Boléro originated as a commission by Russian ballerina Ida Rubinstein and divides opinion with many either loving it or hating it. I thoroughly enjoy the pieceespecially in a concert hall performance as long I don’t hear it too often. This 1928 work remains a popular orchestral showpiece - an unremitting ostinato,an exercise in hypnotic rhythms and strengthening orchestral weight and tone. Slatkin is on fine form although as the orchestral weight increases the gradations begin to lumber. Dutoit supplies a sharper focus, generating extra energy, an elevated degree of colour and mesmerising exhilaration. Also crucial is the percussion rhythm with Slatkin’s players feeling underpowered compared to Dutoit’s relentless and vibrant percussionists.
Michael Cookson  

see also triple review by Brian Reinhart