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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 féërie (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
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround and LPCM Stereo
Reviewed in surround
NAXOS BD-A NBD0030 [67:38]

Ravel is the master of subtle orchestral detail and a recording of this standard is an ideal medium from which to enjoy it. The mastering is from 24bit/96kHz files and it is in surround. The Red Book CD version, however good, cannot compete with this, and that, if sound is your thing, is reason alone for purchasing the present issue. If you like to wow your friends with the Boléro this will do nicely. Careful listening suggests that the ends of pieces have been faded a touch too fast and the natural echo drops away to that peculiarly black silence only found on digital recordings. The notes are well written and informative and track access is available to each work plus the sections of the only multi-movement piece on the disc, the Rapsodie espagnole.
What of the performances? There is a large amount of competition in all of this repertoire including several complete sets which have stood the test of time; notably Martinon and the French National Radio Orchestra on EMI, and Charles Dutoit and the Montréal Orchestra on Decca. Individual pieces like Boléro and the Rapsodie have recorded histories running into double figures and maybe beyond. In the former case we can even hear Ravel's own recording - he takes a few seconds longer than Slatkin. The comment that keeps recurring in my notes is 'too careful'. Much of this music needs a combination of colourful solo playing, precision and sprung rhythms. I cannot question the precision of the Lyon orchestra but soloists do not stand out and there is something lumpen about the phrasing. It is at its least enticing in the Boléro where Slatkin's subtle increase in tempo does nothing to raise the temperature, it just sounds heavy but faster. It should be noted that Ravel, like many others, does not accelerate. Is it possible that the repetitions of the recording sessions ironed out the enthusiasm of the performers? I have spoken to many orchestral players who complain of this. Whatever it was, the lack of excitement is palpable. I suspect these performers heard live would be very fine and perhaps that is how they should have been recorded, audience noise and all. I strongly suggest purchasers consider the 2 CD set on Decca by Dutoit and the Montréal orchestra which, for less than this Blu-ray, provides two-and-a-half hours of Ravel's orchestral music, all in very good early 1980s stereo and most importantly, in superb performances (Decca 460214-2).
Dave Billinge

Previous reviews (CD): Michael Cookson and Brian Reinhart