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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1910) [8:32]
Ma mère l’oye: complete ballet (1912) [29.50]2
Une barque sur l’océan (1906) [7.29]2
Shéhérazade: ouverture de féerie (1899) [3.30]
Menuet antique (1898) [7.02]2
Fanfare pour L’éventail de Jeanne (1927) [1.50]2
Stuttgart SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra/Stéphane Denève
rec. SWR Radio Studio Stuttgart, 9-13 September 2013, Liederhalle Stuttgart Beethovensaal, 16-17 January 2014 (Pavane), Stadthalle Sindelfingen, 30 July 2014 (Shéhérazade)
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93.325 [66.20]

The complete orchestral works of Maurice Ravel have always fitted neatly onto a small number of records, and comprehensive sets of the music have been staples of the catalogues since the earliest days of LP. Mind you, some have been more comprehensive than others; of the works on this disc (described as “Orchestral works 2” - see review of Volume 1) Dutoit (Decca) omitted the early Shéhérazade overture and the brief Fanfare. Several other sets have included orchestral treatments of Ravel works by other hands. The complete Chandos set, for example, includes the Introduction and Allegro and Piano Trio in orchestral versions by conductor Yan-Pascal Tortelier, but excludes the two piano concertos.

The first thing to be said about this disc, which is presumably intended to form part of yet another complete edition, is that the sound is very clear and immediate. There is no sense of the veiled impressionism and recessed reverberation that made the early digital recordings by Charles Dutoit and his Montreal forces so impressive. Although the recordings were made at different venues, the sound throughout is generally remarkably consistent; so this closely observed sound and clarity of texture is clearly what the conductor wants. At any rate I find the offstage fanfares during the Prelude [track 2] of Ma mère l’oye — the complete ballet, not just the suite orchestrated from the piano duet original — far too immediate to convey the sense of mysterious distance that Ravel surely wanted. In the Danse de rouet the spinning-wheel sounds here more like an industrial loom. The close observation of the double bassoon during the conversation between Beauty and the Beast makes the latter more present than it could ever be in the concert hall, while his transformation into violin harmonics is more naturally balanced. At the same time the birds who lead Petit poucet astray in the forest are more backwardly placed, in stark contrast to the approach of a conductor like Ansermet, who knew the composer well and presumably appreciated exactly what he expected. The score is clearly laid out before the listener in full analytical detail, which is welcome; but somehow the very clarity loses the atmosphere of the music itself.

Similar considerations apply in Une barque sur l’océan where the swell of the sea beneath the boat assumes positively gale-like force. On the other hand the ‘fairy overture’ Shéhérazade — which has nothing in common with the later Ravel song cycle of the same title — recorded in a different hall, is somewhat less closely subjected to the scrutiny of the microphones, which brings a more pleasing sense of proportion. It is not clear why these recordings should have been made in different halls, since they don’t seem to derive from live performances; perhaps this simply reflects the peripatetic nature of the broadcasting orchestral schedule. Incidentally it is not clear that the composer, who effectively disowned his Pavane pour une infante défunte in 1912, would have been altogether pleased by the resurrection of this even earlier score which he himself described as “lousy”. It is in fact a charming piece in its own right and has many incidental moments that anticipate the later Ravel but is far from characteristic of his mature style. No more is the Menuet antique, Ravel’s first published score, although Ravel’s orchestration dates from as late in his career as 1929. The disc concludes with the fragmentary Fanfare written by Ravel for a collaborative ballet. The other composers involved were Ferroud, Ibert, Manuel, Delannoy, Roussel, Milhaud, Poulenc, Auric and Schmitt. It is a much more ‘modern’ piece than anything else on this disc but sounds a little forlorn when heard in isolation. One feels that the tremendous tam-tam crash at the end urgently needs something to follow it.

Much of the listener’s reaction to this disc will be a matter of personal taste. Students of composition and orchestration will revel in the clarity of the sound which enables all of this master orchestrator’s often very individual effects to be heard to their best advantage. Others may find the results a little too much in their faces to be altogether comfortable. Stéphane Denève clearly loves the music, and we are never bustled along at too brisk a pace; a criticism that can sometimes be levelled at Boulez, for example. The magical opening of the Jardin féerique from Ma mère l’oye is savoured at a very leisurely pace. I must admit to a preference for the less analytical, more impressionistic approach of Dutoit who cedes very little to Denève in terms of clarity but gains in warmth. Then again, as I have already said, this is a matter of personal taste, and the recorded sound here is very immediate indeed.

Paul Corfield Godfrey