Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Pierre Boulez conducts Ravel
rec. 1964-79
SONY CLASSICAL 88875 108732 [5 CDs: 309:57]

This set does not claim to be a recording of Ravel’s complete orchestral music, but it comes fairly close to being one. In fact the concept of a ‘complete Ravel’ is something of a moveable feast, depending on what the definition of such a concept is. Here the only significant omission is the orchestral version of Tzigane, although the Piano Concerto in G is represented by a version with the same pianist as the Left hand Concerto but a different conductor. The set does however include the ‘fairy overture’ Shéhérazade, omitted from the compendious survey of Ernest Ansermet, for example. Ravel himself seems to have regarded the score as a work of his immaturity. It also extends its net to include the song cycles with orchestral and chamber accompaniment, including the later Shéhérazade which was included by Ansermet but not for instance by Jean Martinon. It also rather oddly includes a separate performance of the second suite from Daphnis et Chloé despite the fact that the complete ballet is also presented. I will return to this matter later.

These recordings represent Pierre Boulez’s first thoughts on the works of Ravel. He later returned to the music for a survey recorded for DG. These were mainly recorded during the late 1960s and early 1970s — the songs and other rarities are somewhat later — when Boulez seemed to be consciously averse to the idea of the washes of impressionist sound that had been the stock-in-trade of Ravel performances by his predecessors. This analytical approach was abetted by closely observed CBS sound that stripped away much of the warmth from the scores. Unfortunately this approach has been further exaggerated by the 24-bit re-mastering of the original tapes, with problems of balance and warmth further exacerbated. It was an oddity of Boulez’s recordings of impressionist music at that period that his live performances often had a greater sense of romantic ardour than his studio versions; the CBS set of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, for example, lacked the sense of emotional engagement that was definitely present at his live performances at Covent Garden on which the recording was based and which can be heard to better effect in his later Welsh National Opera performance on DVD. Nonetheless there is a very solid case to be made for assembling his Ravel recordings into such a compendium as this.

What does however let the side down is the presentation of the box. There is no booklet at all with these discs, just a simple track-listing on the back of each of the individual sleeves containing the relevant CD. Nothing at all about the music, no indication of what the music of the ballets is intended to depict – even the titles of the individual tracks are in French only – and most seriously of all no texts or translations of the songs. The words of these are essential if the listener is to reach any comprehension of Ravel’s exquisite treatments of the poems he chose to set, and the absence of them is a real and positive blot on the collection. It goes even beyond the cheeseparing presentation of reissues that we have unfortunately come to expect from many of the major labels nowadays, and falls below the precedent set by Sony themselves in their earlier CD reissue of the chamber songs (in the version I own somewhat oddly coupled with Roussel’s Third Symphony) when full texts and translations were provided. Sony don’t even have the excuse that the material was unavailable. At a time when some bargain reissues are beginning to respond to criticism by restoring such things — Brilliant Classics a noteworthy example — and when the smaller independent labels are providing a shining example by furnishing this sort of information either in booklets or online, this is a most regrettable move in the other direction.

This is all the more annoying because some at least of these performances deserve much better. Boulez is admittedly here at his most iconoclastic, consciously moulding Ravel into the style of the mid-twentieth century, and the results can be most illuminating. The set gets off to a rather unfortunate start with Ravel’s orchestration of the Menuet antique, where Boulez seems to seek to underline the parallels with the later French music of Satie and Les Six – rather oddly, given the composer/conductor’s reported dislike of the style – and the sound is brasher than one would expect. La Valse is finely delineated, bringing out the violence and aggression of Ravel’s ‘deconstruction’ of a Viennese waltz, although there is no real sense of the music emerging from the mists at the beginning. The performance of the complete ballet Daphnis et Chloé however raises real doubts about Boulez’s approach. He is very fast indeed in places, much too fast for the players who are clearly rushed off their feet in the Pirates’ Dance and the final Danse générale. The balance is seriously skewed, with the percussion brought grotesquely far forward — the triangle sounds louder than the full brass at one point, and no celesta ever sounded as prominent as this. The re-mastering has not been able to do anything about the close placement of the microphones to the strings, with the result that the tone during the sunrise which opens Scene Three is almost totally devoid of body and warmth. At other times Boulez seems simply anxious to dispatch the score as efficiently as possible - shades of his Wagner recordings of the same period. The only instance with any real sense of relaxation comes at the point where the First Suite which Ravel extracted from the ballet begins, which is properly mysterious but seems startlingly to jerk forward into a faster speed half way through; perhaps another take was edited in. The expert players are also clearly taxed to their limits in the faster passages, and the recorded balances are far too artificial to carry any conviction. The small chorus too sounds suspiciously close, which serves only to expose some nervousness in their tuning during their long unaccompanied interlude which introduces the second scene. This is a performance which might be fascinating on first acquaintance, exposing as it does facets of the score sometimes concealed; but it totally misses the sense of Mediterranean warmth which should pervade the music.

The second disc begins with a much more understanding performance of Ravel’s early orchestral ‘overture’ Shéhérazade, and follows this with an exciting delivery of the Valses nobles et sentimentales which is however rather short on either nobility or sentimentality. The performance of the complete ballet Mother Goose which follows is a decided cut above that of Daphnis, with the highlighting of individual instruments still sounding artificial, but more justified in the context of this piquantly coloured score. It has become the fashion in modern times to take the final movement The enchanted garden at a speed considerably below Ravel’s indicated metronome mark, but this is always acceptable as the composer slowly unwinds one of his most glorious string melodies. By comparison Boulez, although closer to Ravel’s instructions, sounds rather matter-of-fact.

Similar concerns arise with the contents of the third disc: the brief fanfare for the ballet L’éventail de Jeanne despatched with aplomb, but the Alborada del gracioso rushed and quite lacking in any sense of humour; nor is it that well played, for example in the congested textures around 5.12. This is one of the earliest recordings in this collection, and it may well be that the Cleveland players were at that time having problems following Boulez’s baton-less conducting. Similarly the very fast speed that Boulez sets for the Vif opening movement of Le tombeau de Couperin seems seriously to incommode the oboist Harold Gomberg, who sounds thoroughly flummoxed and inelegant in places (for example at 2.23) although he seems more poised in later movements. However Boulez lets the tempo rip again at the beginning of the final Rigaudon, with the result that Ravel’s figuration in the opening motif is seriously blurred. The double bassoon solo that opens the Piano Concerto for the left hand is also far from clearly delineated, and the very forward balance given to Philippe Entremont’s piano is fatally unrealistic and closely observed. In this recording it sounds as though the soloist is totally eschewing the use of the sustaining pedal, which I am sure was not the case. Clarity is there, but the result is yet again lacking in atmosphere – with the low piano figuration at 4.44 in the first movement closely observed by the microphones in a manner that defies credibility. The Pavane also tends to glide over the surface of the music. On the other hand in Boléro Boulez’s analytical style pays real dividends, and the close observation of the microphones enables the listener to relish every detail of Ravel’s innovative scoring of the persistently repeated melody.

The fourth disc contains four of the Ravel song-cycles with instrumental accompaniment in the form in which they formerly appeared coupled with Boulez’s performance of the Roussel Third Symphony. As I indicated earlier, the absence of texts, translations or indeed any supporting material makes nonsense of the music for any listener who is not prepared to go elsewhere for this information. This is a pity, because all of the performances are very good indeed, with Jessye Norman particularly impressive in the Chansons madécasses. The recordings made in Europe are less closely microphoned than the American recordings elsewhere in this set. It seems odd however to separate Heather Harper’s account of the song cycle Shéhérazade off onto the fifth CD. When these readings originally appeared they were coupled on the same LP, as indeed they are on the latest 2010 release. There are plenty of rival versions of Shéhérazade but taken as a whole this collection of the Ravel song-cycles remain up there with the best – or would do, if the presentation could had been improved.

Apart from the isolated Shéhérazade, the fifth CD in this set is a very curious adjunct to the whole. In the first place we are given an alternative reading of the second suite from Daphnis et Chloé which is somewhat slower in the Lever du jour (to the advantage of the music) but otherwise hardly distinguishable from the complete performance of the score to be found on CD2. Then, presumably to fill a lacuna in Boulez’s Ravel recordings, we are furnished with a performance of the Piano Concerto in G with the same soloist as in the Left hand Concerto but with a conductor whose approach to Ravel is light years distant from that of Boulez. Entremont is enchanting in the slow movement of the concerto, one of Ravel’s most delicate inspirations. The close observation of the piano by the microphones robs his performance of the ideal sense of contemplation. The inclusion of this performance leaves me puzzled as to the point of this set. If it is intended comprehensively to document Boulez’s approach to Ravel in his earlier years (and the inclusion of the second Daphnis suite would certainly suggest this), then the inclusion of a performance by a different conductor (contradicting the title of the box Pierre Boulez conducts Ravel) would seem unnecessary. If on the other hand it is intended to provide a complete conspectus of Ravel’s orchestral music, then the absence of the orchestral version of Tzigane is puzzling. This is the sort of approach that the provision of an explanatory note in a booklet might have helped to elucidate.

As it is, one cannot treat this conspectus of Ravel’s orchestral music as a primary recommendation for a collection. The approach of Boulez is too iconoclastic, too radical for that. Passages of clarification are counter-balanced by some over-speedy traversals of music that demands more time to expand. Thematically important rhythmic figures are sometimes unclear as a result. Close observation by the microphones - aided and abetted by the new remastering - seriously diminishes the sense of atmosphere which the listener really needs. As a supplement to an alternative reading of the music (the Dutoit four CD Decca box from the 1980s would seem ideal in this respect, although once again Tzigane is missing) it has a definite value, or would do if appropriate documentation were provided. The song-cycles could then be added in their latest Sony CD release (39023). Otherwise one is forced to the conclusion that there is more to Ravel’s music than Boulez was able or willing to realise at this point in his conducting career.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Contents & performance details
CD 1 [74.36]
Menuet antique1 [7.10]; La Valse1 [13.02]; Daphnis et Chloé14 [54.34]
CD 2 [74.15]
Shéhérazade (Overture)1 [15.54]; Rapsodie espagnole2 [14.52]; Valses nobles et sentimentales1 [15.56]; Ma mère l’Oye1 [27.17]
CD 3 [75.08]
L’éventail de Jeanne (Fanfare)1 [1.46]; Alborada del gracioso2 [7.36]; Le tombeau de Couperin2 [17.16]; Piano Concerto for the left hand13 [18.26]; Pavane pour une infante défunte2 [6.15]; Une barque sur l’océan1 [7.04]; Boléro1 [15.32]
CD 4 [41.13]
Three poems of Stéphane Mallarmé45 [12.37]; Chansons madécasses6 [13.41]; Don Quichotte à Dulcinée56 [7.25]; Five popular Greek melodies56 [7.12]
CD 5 [54.45]
Daphnis et Chloé27 (Suite No 2) [16.21]; Piano Concerto in G9 [22.19]; Shéhérazade (song cycle)58 [15.53]
4Jill Gomez, 6Jessye Norman and 8Heather Harper (sopranos), 6José van Dam (baritone),
3Philippe Entremont (piano), 4Camerata Singers, 1New York Philharmonic Orchestra, 2Cleveland Orchestra and 7Chorus, 5BBC Symphony Orchestra, 6Ensemble Intercontemporain/Pierre Boulez except 9Philippe Entremont (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
rec. 14various locations in New York, 27 April 1971, 8 January 1973, 23-25 February 1974, 21 December 1974, 17-22 March 1975, 8 November 1976: 2Severance Hall, Cleveland, 21 July 1969, 3 April 1970, 20 November 1970; 4Henry Wood Hall, London, 15 April 1977; 6All Saints Church, Tooting, London, 9 December 1977; 8EMI Studios, Abbey Road, London, 13-14 January 1974; 6IRCAM, Paris, 4 February 1979; 9Town Hall, Philadelphia, 12 May 1964


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