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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Orchestral Works – Volume 2

Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911) [15:25]
Gaspard de la nuit (1908, orch. Marius Constant, 1990) [22:15]
Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) [16:12]
La valse (1920) [12:47]
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec. September 2011 (Valses), November 2012, Auditorium de Lyon
NAXOS 8.572888 [66:39]

The good news: Leonard Slatkin comes to life in a characterful reading of Le tombeau de Couperin. The opening Prélude sounds a bit runny - the rhythmic foundation could be firmer - but the interplay of colours is pleasing. Slatkin paces the two middle movements slightly faster than usual, underlining the dance element in the Forlane and the easy flow of the Menuet . The Rigaudon is splashy, if perhaps over-aggressive.
La Valse, too, is good. The 1960s and 1970s vogue for performances that underlined civilization's mad rush to destruction seems, mercifully, to have passed; conductors now feel free to play this score for purely musical values, as Slatkin does. He brings a sense of fantasy to the lightly scored passages, and infuses the rest with an appropriate dance-like lilt. The woodwind run around the ten-minute mark is slightly ahead of everyone else.
Valses nobles et sentimentales is a case of swings and roundabouts. The rhythmic chords at the start are muffled and soggy. The piquant third (Modéré) and fourth (Assez animé) movements flow gracefully, but the fifth (Presque lent), though attentively moulded, loses momentum. The Moins vif movement, anticipating the buoyant rhythmic patterns of La valse, achieves some uplift; but then the Epilogue, less an actual waltz than a thoughtful reflection on the form, lies there inert.
Marius Constant's transcription of Gaspard de la nuit is intelligently conceived - such liquid piano writing doesn't transfer readily to the orchestra - even if Constant seems to have had Debussy’s La mer, rather than Ravel, in his ear. Here we get the Slatkin familiar from his earlier series of RCA recordings, seemingly unattuned to subtleties of orchestral colour and texture. The lightly scored opening of Ondine conveys no sense of anticipation; the high-lying passages don't shimmer; the climaxes don't surge. In Le gibet, the woodwinds at the start draw the ear, but successive episodes become increasingly static. The chattering bits in Scarbo are effective, but the fuller passages that follow sound generalized, the tuttis portentous. In short, we have the sounds without the music.
The Gaspard transcription awaits a more fully realized performance. Meanwhile, for durable accounts of the other works, you could do worse than Boulez’s Sony versions, from Cleveland (La valse) and New York, with Martinon (EMI), Monteux (Philips), and Masur (Warner Apex) as possible supplements for La valse.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

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