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Bolero: Orchestral Masterpieces
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Bolero (1928) [14:50]
Alborada Del Gracioso (1918) [7:24]
La Valse (1919-20) [13:09]
Ma Mère L’Oye - Suite (1911) [16:55]
Piano Concerto in D Major for the Left Hand [18:32]
Piano Concerto in G Major [21:50]
Tzigane [9:51]
Shéhérazade [16:27]
Daphnis et Chloé (1911-12): Première Suite [12:16], Deuxième Suite [17:30]
Rapsodie Espagnole (1907) [15:56]
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1919) [16:52]
François-René Duchâble (piano); Pierre Amoyal (violin); Rachel Yakar (soprano)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Armin Jordan
Choeur de la Radio Suisse Romande/André Charlet (Chorus master)
rec. 1986 (CD 1), 1987 (CDs 2-3)
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 651447 [3 CDs: 52:20 + 66:40 + 62:33]

While there is no shortage of recordings of selected orchestral works by Maurice Ravel, a far smaller number of conductors have taken it upon themselves to record the full set of Ravel’s orchestral works. This recently reissued three CD compilation of Armin Jordan’s Erato recordings with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is not a complete survey of Ravel’s orchestral compositions but includes most of the major works and adds to the programme the two piano concertos, Tzigane for violin and orchestra and the song-cycle for soprano and orchestra, Shéhérazade. Since this compilation has been released before, Warner Classics must have decided that it was prime time to reissue the set once again. Unfortunately, there are no liner notes or booklet in this budget-style release, though track-listings and times are printed on the Digipak-style case.
Anyone familiar with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (OSR) will know that it is no stranger to this repertoire. Ernest Ansermet, who founded the OSR in 1918, recorded most of these works with his orchestra for Decca in the late 1950s to early 1960s. These recordings, in spite of their vintage, remain some of the best-loved interpretations and most natural sounding recordings of these works.
Disc one of this compilation starts off with the warhorse, Bolero. Clocking in at 14:50, it runs more or less in the middle of the road in terms of tempo and perhaps even on the swifter side. Among the versions I own, Lorin Maazel and the New Philharmonia race to the finish with a time of 13:12 while Jos Van Immerseel and Anima Eterna take their time at 17:02. Jordan skilfully paces the OSR, incrementally building to the climax, where the closing measures are powerfully punctuated by growling brass, crashing cymbals and the deep, visceral impact of the bass drum. The versions here of Alborada del Gracioso and La Valse won’t supplant my current favourite recordings by Fritz Reiner (RCA/Sony, 1957) or Jean Martinon (RCA/Sony, 1968) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or by Paul Paray with the Detroit Symphony (Mercury, 1962), but they do sparkle with colour and vitality. The Reiner and Paray recordings, made during what some consider to be the “golden age” of classical recording, used minimal microphone placement and have an especially natural balance that is not as frequently achieved with today’s day multi-miked digital recording techniques. Armin Jordan takes a more leisurely tempo in La Valse (13:09), which doesn’t quite have the natural momentum of Paray (11:41), whose orchestral attacks are also more incisive and articulate. Ma Mère L’Oye fills out the disc, performed in its abbreviated suite form and with plenty of orchestral colour.
Disc two showcases the artistry of three soloists, the first of whom is the French pianist François-René Duchâble, who gives first-rate performances of Ravel’s two piano concertos. Just listen to how Duchâble plays the opening solo to the second movement of the Piano Concerto in G Major - it’s truly understated beauty. It’s just a shame that immediately following his just-about-perfect introduction, the oboist mars the movement by making an out of tune entrance. In the Presto movement, Duchâble takes the tempo just a hair slower than Krystian Zimerman (Deutsche Grammophon, 1996) or Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (Chandos, 2011) but delivers no less rhythmic interest or excitement. The Tzigane offers violinist Pierre Amoyal apt opportunity to display his talents, and he gives a fervent account. Oddly coupled with these two works for solo instrument and orchestra is Shéhérazade, based on three poems by Tristan Klingsor and not to be confused with Ravel’s early orchestral work, Shéhérazade: ouverture de féerie. I admit that I have never been a huge fan of this Shéhérazade, but it is performed quite expressively by soprano Rachel Yakar.
Disc three groups three of Ravel’s more substantial orchestral works, Suites Nos. 1 and 2 from Daphnis et Chloé, the Rapsodie Espagnole, and Le Tombeau de Couperin. All are given solid readings. In Daphnis et Chloé, I particularly enjoyed the excitement that the OSR and chorus generate in the Danse guerrière (Suite No. 1) and Danse générale (Suite No. 2). The opening of the Lever du Jour (Suite No. 2), the most beautiful musical depiction of a sunrise, unfolds naturally but just falls short of the expansiveness heard in recordings by Martinon and the CSO and Charles Dutoit with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Decca, 1981). The Rapsodie Espagnole has its moments but isn’t quite as successful at drawing the listener into its Spanish sound-world as does Reiner’s account with the CSO. Le Tombeau de Couperin starts off with an unhurried Prélude, followed by a nicely paced Forlane. The Menuet, which could be a little quicker in tempo, is nevertheless charming in its simplicity. A jovial Rigaudon concludes the work and the disc.
Sound quality on all three CDs is clear, well balanced, and natural sounding with a good dynamic range. Presentation is slightly laid-back, allowing for the hall acoustics to be nicely captured. Bass extension is deep with at times quite a visceral impact.
Given the number of outstanding recordings available of this repertoire, this reissue faces stiff competition. It might serve well as a decent introductory survey to the orchestral music of Maurice Ravel or satisfy Ravel completists, but there are still better alternatives out there if you are looking for a more perfect marriage of performance, interpretation, and sound quality. For the complete orchestral works, the EMI stereo recordings of André Cluytens and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra from 1962 are a must-hear, not only for Cluytens’ magical interpretations but also for the characteristic sound of the PCO of that era. Some mild tape hiss is always present on these analogue recordings, but don’t let that get in the way of your enjoyment. Also on EMI are the 1970s recordings of Jean Martinon and the Orchestre de Paris, which many consider to be a reference. As mentioned earlier, Martinon also made a single Ravel recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for RCA/Sony in 1968 that is excellent and available on CD. Add to these the superbly recorded set made for Vox by Stanislaw Skrowczewski and the Minnesota Orchestra (engineered by Aubort and Nickrenz) and Seiji Ozawa’s set with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon, both from the 1970s. There are two current projects, one with Leonard Slatkin and the Orchestre National de Lyon for Naxos and one with Stéphane Denève and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra for Hänssler Classics. If Denève has the same talent for Ravel as he did for Debussy and Roussel, this series may be one to follow closely. For select works, check out the legendary recordings of Fritz Reiner with the CSO on RCA/Sony, Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on Mercury, Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on RCA/Sony, Pierre Monteux and the London Symphony Orchestra on Decca, Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra on Decca, and Pierre Boulez with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon.
Albert Lam