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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Orchestral Works - Vol. 1
La valse (1920) [12:14]
Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) [17:48]
Alborada del gracioso (1905/18) [7:48]*
Rapsodie espagnole (1907-8) [16:00]*
Boléro (1928) [15:19]*
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR/Stéphane Denève
rec. Liederhalle Stuttgart, Beethovensaal, October and *December 2012
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC 93.305 [69:34]

Stéphane Denève takes a fresh, distinctive approach to Ravel. He's willing to explore the interpretive possibilities of restrained dynamics: in Le tombeau de Couperin, for example, he sustains a brooding mystery in the minore section of the Menuet. He also encourages his wind soloists to play with a fair amount of rubato. A third trait, that of underlining detached articulations in brief motifs, comes into play too infrequently to be more than a finicky distraction.
 
That said, it happens that the best of these performances, that of La valse, isn't marked by these particular niceties. Here, Denève scores in the clarity he brings to the busy orchestral textures: one rarely hears so much of what is going on. At the same time, he invests the music with a nice surge, and treats the more lightly scored passages with some delicacy.
 
The rubato phrasing comes most strongly into play in Boléro, in which the soloists flexibly weave their various themes around a strict pulse in the accompanying parts. There's an awkward moment or two, but, most of the time, this approach works, even where Denève allows an unusual amount of latitude, as when the horn solo incorporates an actual "blue note". The conductor also acknowledges the standard colouristic effects, capturing the organ-like effect, for example, in the episode for horn and two piccolos.
 
Rapsodie espagnole and Alborada del gracioso go well, even if neither rises markedly above the norm. In the Rapsodie, the Prélude emerges in a hushed pianissimo, the full-orchestra punctuations cushioned rather than aggressive. The Habañera, while rhythmically firm, goes with a nice languor, which returns in the slower sections of the lively concluding Feria. The outer sections of the Alborada del gracioso are buoyant and splashy; the middle section, save for a full-bodied bassoon solo, is conventional.
 
I feel churlish criticizing Le tombeau de Couperin, because the best parts of it are special. Denève holds down the dynamics at the start, lending the music a sense of anticipation along with the customary brilliance, and I've already mentioned the mystery of the Menuet. Unfortunately, he doesn't solve the longer, comparatively knotty Forlane. It begins liltingly enough, but the "B" section loses some momentum, as well as its sense of direction, and the coda starts to feel endless.
 
I was surprised by how stylishly this German ensemble played Ravel, though I probably shouldn't have been: German radio orchestras, after all, have to be adept in a widely varied repertoire ranging from Baroque to contemporary music. The string ensemble has a lovely sheen, and the wind solos are liquid and supple: a breathy, diffuse principal flute in the low range bothered me in the Rigaudon of Le tombeau, but not at the start of Boléro.
 
Hänssler's designation, "Vol. 1", suggests that this is the start of a planned series. It's worth watching for — further installments shouldn't be generic, at least.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.