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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé (complete ballet) (1909–12) [56:52]
Pavane pour une Infante défunte (1899, orch. 1910) [6:30]
Netherlands Radio Choir
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. De Doelen Hall, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 2012/14. DDD
BIS BIS-1850 SACD [63:27]

Reviewed as 24-bit download from eclassical.com (also available as mp3 and 16-bit lossless, all with pdf booklet, and from dealers on SACD)

There are two classic recordings of the complete Daphnis et Chloé which will never be superseded: Pierre Monteux with the LSO on Decca and Charles Munch with the Boston SO on RCA, both of them reissued in various formats.  I first heard the Monteux from the University record library c.1963 and bought it when it reappeared on Ace of Diamonds and again on CD in the Decca Legends series, so if I have to plump for one of these great versions it has to be Monteux, now available on Decca Originals E4757525 – review.  The E prefix suggests that it’s already an import only in the UK, so snap it up before it disappears from availability – the 50-CD limited-edition monster box where it also featured has already been exhausted.

The Munch recording is no longer available in the UK on a single SACD but only as a download (Soundmark Records) or in a 60-CD RCA Living Stereo box costing almost £100 (88765414972).  I reviewed the Naxos Classical Archive mono transfer in rather restricted sound in DL News 2012/20.

There’s a recent LPO release with Bernard Haitink in charge at the South Bank in 1979 (LPO0059).  Karim Elmahmoudi was not alone in thinking this too reserved – review – but I liked Haitink’s recording with the Chicago SO (CSO Resound CSOR901906 – DL Roundup 2012/19) and if you are happy with just the two suites, amounting to about half of the whole ballet, Haitink’s earlier 1974 recording reissued on PentaTone is well worth considering (PTC5186167 – review).

Old preferences are hard to beat but this new Daphnis comes close to doing so.  Heard in 24-bit sound as a download from BIS’s associates at eclassical.com, which past experience of comparing the two formats convinces me will be the equivalent of the stereo SACD layer, the recording is very good.  Though the Decca has held up very well over its many reissues, it can’t quite match the new BIS, my only reservation about which is that its very wide dynamic range makes it quite unsuitable for playing in the car, where the quiet passages would go unheard.  It’s even difficult to find an ideal domestic listening level: it mostly benefits from a small volume boost over normal which leaves the climaxes impressive but a bit neighbour-unfriendly.

One of my colleagues has been in debate with BIS chief Robert von Bahr on this very topic before, also in the context of a Rotterdam/Nézet-Séguin recording, and in all fairness I should draw to your attention to his reply in defence of reproducing the full dynamic range .  I certainly would not wish all recordings to sound levelled-out like ClassicFM broadcasts and too many mp3 downloads, and I don’t wish to generate more heat than light on this subject, but I do think that there is a happy meeting place in the middle ground where the soft music doesn’t sound denatured and the loud passages are not uncomfortable – which is especially important for those who like to listen on headphones but don’t wish to end up prematurely deaf.

I’m sure that BIS do employ the maximum permissible recording range and that the peaks don’t exceed that range.  I know from the experience of trying to make analogue recordings many years ago on a Ferrograph how difficult it is to get things right: in those days too low a level throughout meant the softest passages being covered by tape hiss and too high meant risking distortion, while constantly watching the VU meters and cranking the record level up and down led to the flattening that makes ClassicFM unpleasant for serious listening.

For many years Charles Dutoit’s recording of Daphnis with the Montréal Orchestra was my benchmark audio recording (Decca Legends 4586052, download only, or 4783725, 16 CDs): I took the CD along whenever auditioning new equipment.  Now the BIS recording might well come to serve the same function.

In performance terms the contest is close.  If I still prefer Monteux it’s not by much and it’s not just because old habits die hard.  Listening again to the older version there are one or two moments of sheer magic that place this on a par with Monteux’s equally magical recording of Elgar’sEnigma Variations (Decca Eloquence 4805019 or Beulah Extra 1BX181Download Roundup February 2012/2), also from his time with the LSO.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin has previously recorded the Daphnis Second Suite with the Rotterdam Orchestra for EMI (now Warner Parlophone, download only apart from Amazon UKAmazon US and ArkivMusic – sample/stream fromQobuz).  William Hedley thought that very successful, with some reservations – review.  A few years on he and the orchestra, of which he is now principal conductor, have got even more into the music. 

Of the versions that I have heard – certainly not all the 50+ recordings currently available – this is the best since Dutoit (released in 1981) and arguably the best since Monteux (1959).  All three achieve their excellence by not trying to out-guess Ravel and with the help of fine orchestral playing.

A crucial place for comparison is lever du jour at the beginning of Part 3 and the beginning of Suite No.2.  Try streaming the Monteux recording from Qobuz – sample only for non-subscribers – and you will be taken completely out of yourself.  At 5:11 Monteux seems to find the exact tempo for this section and he’s matched almost precisely to the second by Dutoit in his recording of Suite No.2 (Double Decca).  You might think Nézet-Séguin’s slightly more expansive 5:35 (EMI/Warner) or 5:36 (BIS) would work even better but it didn’t quite take me out of myself as much as Monteux or Dutoit who in his complete recording is slightly more expansive still at 6:08, though it comes close to doing so.

The music grows very gently out of silence and rises to a crescendo – I chose the wide dynamic range on this track from the Dutoit CD when I bought my most recent speakers for serious listening in the study: it helped me save £100 on a pair of Monitor Audios that sounded better than the more expensive competition.  With a slight volume lift the new BIS sounds almost as impressive on those same speakers, especially at the crescendo, but I think I might still marginally prefer the Decca for the purpose.

The orchestral Pavane pour une Infante défunte makes a good pairing for Daphnis et Chloé – the orchestration was completed at much the same time as the ballet – and it, too, receives a sympathetic performance and recording.  Decca chose the same coupling for the Monteux reissue, but they also added Rapsodie Espagnole, extending the playing time to add to the bargain.  If, however, you download the new BIS recording from eclassical.com, their per-second charging policy makes the shorter playing time less of a problem: $9.51 for mp3 and 16-bit CD-quality lossless and $15.21 for 24-bit, as opposed to around £14/$22 for the SACD.

As I close this review I see that one music magazine has made this the 5+5-star orchestral Recording of the Month.  I wouldn’t go quite that far – I’m still most likely to dig out the Monteux CD when I want to listen to Daphnis et Chloé and Pavane pour une Infante défunte – but I did enjoy this recording and I shall be listening to it again.  I certainly can’t understand why we have had to wait almost three years for this Daphnis to be released.

Brian Wilson

Another review ...

Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s career, to date, has been strange. He began with an uneven series of recordings in his native Montreal, highlighted by Bruckner and Nino Rota, then moved to the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. There he signed a three-disc recording contract with BIS, of which this is the third. First came a dull Berlioz Symphonie fantastique (“aimless…much too controlled…disappointment” – Dan Morgan), then Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (“where’s the testosterone?” Dan Morgan asked, drawing a reply from BIS CEO Robert von Bahr himself).

This third disc, mostly recorded in 2012, came before the latest stage in Nézet-Séguin’s career, in which he has signed on to Deutsche Grammophon, become the main guest conductor at the London Philharmonic, and taken over the Philadelphia Orchestra. I saw him lead the LPO twice, and neither concert was at all memorable, except that after one, the man behind me loudly and angrily blurted, “Absolutely dreadful! Bland as bland can be.”

I’ve heard that Nézet-Séguin is an incredibly charming man, beloved by his musicians. He keeps the players in fine shape, rehearses carefully, is a supportive accompanist, and inspires playing of great precision. As you can hear, he has certainly built the standards of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. One thing he does not often do is have original or novel ideas; another thing he does not do is whip up excitement. A colleague of mine on another website says he conducts like an old man.

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé provides an opportunity to reset expectations. This is a sleek French score, with only a few truly physically exciting scenes, and lots of opportunity for tasteful lyricism. This sort of thing proves right up Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s alley. The Rotterdam Philharmonic plays wonderfully, and the BIS recording, with its truly huge dynamic range and beautiful sound-picture of the orchestra, is a tremendous boost. (I listened via lossless FLAC from eClassical.) Not one solo on this disc is played with anything less than impeccable taste. There are fun details to the score, clearly audible here: check out the way the violins play their accompaniment at 2:06 on track 7, or all the murky goings-on right before the famous sunrise.

The biggest advantage to this disc (as BIS CEO Robert von Bahr himself noted, in an eClassical email) is the astounding flute soloist, Juliette Hurel. She’s recorded a number of chamber and solo albums, all of them wonderful. You may know her from a truly extraordinary disc of Jean Cras’ chamber music, a Gabriel Fauré compendium, or a joyful recital of Beethoven and Schubert. She’s a marvel here, even among the general high class of the Rotterdam winds and French horns. The penultimate scene may be a little slow at first, but her exquisite playing compensates.

Aside from clear sound and detail, I’m not sure there’s much to distinguish this recording. The overall performance is slow, leaning on great playing to keep our interest. This is something Nézet-Séguin does live, too: take a leisurely tempo, expect the orchestra to be interesting enough that the tempo doesn’t matter. However without the epic grandeur or vision of Pierre Boulez’s similarly-paced recording on DG, this just isn’t very distinctive. The Rotterdam account has more in common with Laurent Petitgirard’s on Naxos, another disc I respect and enjoy but do not consider a favourite.

For those who need Daphnis in audiophile sound, the old Boulez disc holds up brilliantly, and there’s also an option with Yakov Kreizberg, shortly before his death at age 51. Most listeners will be fine staying with their old favourites. On the other hand, this CD does have perks, including the glorious engineering and orchestral playing. I just wonder, given such a good band and such a great microphone set-up, and given adequate rehearsal time, how many conductors around the world could have matched or bettered the results here. Kreizberg did. Stéphane Denève’s upcoming recording should give us another answer.

Brian Reinhart




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