I reviewed the Naxos series of recordings of Debussy from Lyon under the baton of Jun Märkl with considerable enthusiasm last year. It expanded the existing roster of the composer’s orchestral music by the inclusion of a large number of orchestral transcriptions of his piano music.
This new series from Lyon under Leonard Slatkin seems to have the intention of doing the same for Debussy’s fellow-impressionist Ravel. It includes an orchestration of Gaspard de la nuit by Marius Constant who was also responsible for the ‘Pelléas et Mélisande symphony” featured in the Debussy collection. This is all to the good. Many of Ravel’s orchestral works were originally written for piano (either solo or duet) and only subsequently orchestrated by the composer in his usual inimitable style. Either that or they exist in parallel versions for piano and for orchestra - as indeed do all three of the other works included in this collection. This disc is described as “Volume 2” and presumably there will be more to come. Volume 1 was reviewed here.
Le tombeau de Couperin, however, is quite distinct in its piano and orchestral guises. The latter only includes four of the original six movements in Ravel’s orchestration. One might almost complain that the opportunity has been missed to supply the missing two movements in new arrangements. There again, if Ravel found his orchestral technique inadequate to the task who are we to cavil? Indeed the opening Prelude with its rapid oboe figurations is a real challenge for any player. It is much to the credit of the Lyon oboist that he manages to make it sound so easy to bring off (track 12). The orchestral playing throughout is first-rate, with plenty of delicacy and spice. There’s also the proper sense of impressionist perspective and real élan and bounce where required. The Forlane lollops along with the right sense of insouciance. The final Rigaudon has all the blatancy one could wish. La Valse (track 16) opens with a tangible sense of mystery but is still well defined and the waltz rhythms emerge with panache from the gloom. The bass drum thuds are spectacular. The Valses nobles et sentimentales which begin the disc are properly less extrovert but still have plenty of swing and richness.
Which brings us back to Marius Constant’s orchestration of the piano showpiece Gaspard de la nuit. It is no real surprise that Ravel clearly balked at any notion of transferring the work into orchestral guise. It is, after all, so clearly written for the piano with its glittering cascades of notes, especially in Ondine with its depiction of the water nymph frolicking among the rippling waves. Constant nevertheless brings it off well, with clear references to Ravel’s own orchestration of the rather similar Un barque sur l’océan. The sound is authentic and the orchestra copes well with the clearly extremely taxing parts they are given to play. The macabre Le gibet perhaps predictably comes off well, the tolling bell even more distinct than in the piano original. The orchestral colours are appropriately and authentically dark. There is a hint of Caplet’s orchestration of Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint-Sebastién here (track 10). The final Scarbo, a portrait of a malevolent spirit which horrifies even the most fearless pianist, almost sounds like La valse at the start. It soon bursts out into another orchestral tour de force. This has all the hallmarks of authentic Ravel - as in his orchestration of Debussy’s Tarantelle styrienne and even Mussorgsky’s Gnomus. The Lyon players once again carry off this with aplomb and deceptive ease. Constant’s Pelléas ‘symphony’ in the Debussy cycle was superb, but this is even better.
This second disc in Naxos’s Ravel series indeed bids fair to equal if not surpass their Debussy cycle, not only in the quality of playing and recording but also in the completeness of its survey of the composer’s music. Carry on please.
Paul Corfield Godfrey