This is the first recording of the 45-musician Orchestre de Chambre de Paris (OCP) under the direction of famed violinist Thomas Zehetmair, who assumed the role of principal conductor and artistic advisor during the 2012/13 season. Together they present a program of French music by Ravel and Debussy. With a myriad of existing recordings of the orchestral works of Ravel and Debussy on the market, one might ask what would be the reason to pick up yet another. The feature that makes this new release unique and worth an exploration is its smaller ensemble, which for me translated into greater textural clarity without any sacrifices in terms of richness of sound.
Zehetmair opens the album with Ravel’s Tzigane, a work that I previous appreciated but never truly enjoyed until I heard this zesty performance.Zehetmair casts away pleasantries and infuses the work with a raw savagery, particularly in the lengthy solo introduction, that just does justice to the gypsy flavor of this piece. Suffice it to say I was completely drawn into this performance from the commanding opening notes. I went back to listen to other recordings of the Tzigane that I own - David Oistrakh, Ruggiero Ricci, Itzhak Perlman, Zino Francescatti, Arthur Grumiaux, and Michael Rabin - and while each of these masters had his own distinct sound, I couldn’t help but feel that they all sounded a bit too refined for my tastes. Naïve’s closer miking also aids in communicating the intensity of Zehetmair’s playing. The OCP are in total synergy with their leader, providing an equally characterful and dynamic accompaniment.
The Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte offers a stark contrast in atmosphere to the preceding track. In spite of a few issues with proper intonation in the wind and horn solos, the ensemble playing here by the OCP is unmannered and expressive. The strings have a silky sonority that suits the mood of the piece.
Next up are two orchestral suites, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and Debussy’s Petite Suite, both of which were originally composed for piano then later transcribed for orchestra. The original version of Le Tombeau de Couperin for piano contained six movements; Ravel chose to personally orchestrate the first four. Debussy asked Henri Busser to orchestrate the Petite Suite and, according to the album liner notes, was quite satisfied with the result. Wind instruments are predominant in all movements of Le Tombeau de Couperin, and the wind timbres of the OCP evoke memories of the classic French orchestral sound of the first half of the last century. Zehetmair and the OCP deliver a Petite Suite full of charm and joie de vivre and demonstrate in the Cortège and Ballet movements that the chamber orchestra is quite capable of generating a big sound in dynamic climaxes.
The two Danses Sacrée et Profane feature the young and highly gifted harpist Emmanuel Ceysson, who has held the position of Principal Harpist of the Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris since 2006. Debussy’s use of pentatonic and whole-tone scales gives the Danse Sacrée a mythical and mystical feel, while the Danse Profane with its ¾ time has a greater sense of levity. In Ceysson’s hands, both of these works sparkle. The Sarabande, originally composed by Debussy in 1894, was revised and incorporated into his Pour le Piano suite in 1901, where it is probably best known. Ravel orchestrated the piece in 1922 at the request of the publisher, and it is that arrangement that is presented here. The Danse, initially titled Tarantelle styrienne andalso arranged by Ravel for orchestra, joyfully closes the album.
Sound quality is characteristic of Naïve recordings - exceptional clarity and powerful dynamics. Presentation is close and more immediate, which seems to capture the sound of the OCP well. Liner notes, penned by Denis Herlin, provide an informative overview of the historical context of the works performed on the album.
While many listeners and collectors may already have their personal Ravel and Debussy favorites, this recording from Thomas Zehetmair and the OCP is a delightful program from start to finish and worth your consideration. My only reservation was its relatively shorter program time at just over one hour. But as my high school orchestra director once quoted, “It’s better to leave the audience saying ‘I wish they’d played more!’ rather than ‘I thought they’d never end!’” She couldn’t have been more correct.