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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
L’Enfant et les sortilèges – Fantaisie lyrique (libretto by Colette) (1925) [44:41]
Ma Mère l’Oye – Complete Ballet (1911-12) [27:11]
Hélène Hébrard (soprano) – L’Enfant (The Child); Delphine Galou (alto) – Maman (Mother), la Libellule (the Dragonfly), la Tasse chinoise (the Chinese Cup); Julie Pasturaud (mezzo) – la Bergère (the Louis XV Chair), la Chatte (the White Cat), l’Ecureuil (the Squirrel), un Pâtre (a Herdsman); Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor) – la Théière (the Teapot), le Petit Vieillard (Arithmetic Man), la Rainette (the Tree Frog); Marc Barrard (baritone) – l’Horloge comtoise (the Grandfather Clock), le Chat (the Black Cat); Nicolas Courjal (bass) – le Fauteuil (the Armchair), un Arbre (a Tree); Ingrid Perruche (soprano) – la Chauve-souris (the Bat), la Chouette (the Screech Owl), une Pastourelle (a Shepherdess); Annick Massis (soprano) – le Feu (the Fire), la Princesse (the Princess), le Rossignol (the Nightingale)
Choeur Britten; Jeune Choeur symphonique; Maîtrise de l’Opéra National de Lyon
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Auditorium Maurice Ravel, Lyon, France, 22-26 January 2013 (L’Enfant), September 2011 (Ma Mère l’Oye). DDD
NAXOS 8.660336 [71:52]

Leonard Slatkin remarks in the CD booklet how the two Ravel operas have a special meaning for him, as they were among the first recordings he owned. He is especially taken with L’Enfant et les sortilèges, for he sees it as a model of a stage work that can be made perfectly clear by just listening to the music. Ma Mère l’Oye, too, means a great deal to him and as a young pianist he enjoyed playing the five pieces that constituted the suite. For Slatkin and I’m certain for many listeners this pairing of the opera and ballet is welcome, as both works relate to childhood. I know of no other recording where they are so paired. While both performances are idiomatic and well performed, neither will likely replace previous favorites.

L’Enfant et les sortilèges is one of Ravel’s most delightful works with its colourful orchestration and indelible passages. It takes a virtuoso orchestra and one that captures the subtleties of the scoring. Slatkin clearly has that with the Orchestre National de Lyon, as he proved earlier in his recording of Saint-Saëns Third Symphony. They leave little to be desired in both Ravel works here. His vocal soloists are another matter. I went back to my favourite account of the opera, Lorin Maazel’s with the Orchestre National de la R.T.F from 1961 on DG for comparison. It is laudable that Slatkin employs French singers whose native language tells in the various characterisations of the opera. However, with few exceptions, such as Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, the soloists are too operatic, too cultivated to convincingly portray the various roles. Hélène Hébrard, who sings the part of the Child, does not sound like a child but a fine operatic soprano. Comparing her with Maazel’s Françoise Ogéas is especially telling where one can easily picture the latter as the naughty child. So it goes with most of the roles, though I did enjoy Annick Massis as the Princess and the Nightingale. The choruses, as with the orchestra, are excellent whenever they get to sing. The Maazel recording still sounds good for its age, even if the sonic advantage of the new one is apparent both in the warmth of the sound and the orchestral detail that is occasionally clearer. Yet, there is something magical in the earlier version that is lacking here. A large part of this is due to the more operatic singers, but there is more to it than that — a certain indefinable rightness in the older recording.

With Ma Mère l’Oye there is much greater competition. Having the ballet, rather than just the orchestral suite, is a real bonus because the interludes seamlessly connect the individual tableaux and provide much wonderful music otherwise missing. Slatkin and his orchestra capture the magic of this wonderful score as well as most other accounts I have heard. It is a lovely performance with sufficient attention paid to the dynamics. The gorgeous strings playing softly at the beginning of the last section, The Fairy Garden, rarely fail to create one of those spine-tingling moments that stay with the listener, and they don’t disappoint here. The delicious woodwind soloists also give their all. I compared the new Slatkin with the recording by Charles Dutoit and Orchestre symphonique de Montréal on Decca, one that I have always admired, and found that there is little to prefer one over the other. Indeed, I had to go back as far as 1964 and Pierre Monteux with the London Symphony on Philips (review) to hear something so special as to make any other recording seem redundant. Perhaps that’s too strong a reaction and Slatkin certainly has the measure of the work. Monteux may always be my first port of call when I want to hear this sumptuous piece, but I know I will return to Slatkin and Dutoit, too.

For collectors seeking this particular combination of works this disc is self-recommending, even with my reservations concerning the soloists in L’Enfant. Naxos does not include the text of the opera in the accompanying booklet, but Keith Anderson provides a detailed synopsis of the action and background notes on the opera and ballet.

Leslie Wright



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