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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Menuet pompeux
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Sarabande et Danse
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Op. 9 [9:58]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an exhibition
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Auditorium de Lyon, France, 22-26 October 2013 (Chabrier), 26-29 November 2012 (Mussorgsky); Conservatoire National de Lyon 18-20 September 2013 (Debussy and Schumann)
NAXOS 8.573124 [60:58]

By common consent Ravel was a master of the orchestra, not only in his own orchestral works, but also in orchestrating his own piano works and those of others. Leonard Slatkin is currently recording a whole Ravel series for Naxos (review ~ review). This has already included a number of orchestral pieces, the two operas (review ~ review) – and Marius Constant’s orchestration of Gaspard de la Nuit, which is well worth hearing. Now he has given us a disc consisting entirely of Ravel’s orchestrations of other composers, which range from that of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, one of the best-known works in the repertoire, to that of some numbers from Schumann’s Carnaval, which in this form are very little known.

We begin with Chabrier’s Menuet pompeux, which was the ninth of Chabrier’s Dix pièces pittoresques for piano. Ravel orchestrated it in an ebullient style indistinguishable, to me anyway, from Chabrier’s own orchestral manner. I have to say that the opening here, though vigorous, is splashy and imprecise, the violins in particular sounding as if they are scrambling to find the right notes. However, matters improve and the oboe and solo violin in the middle section are delicate and charming while the reprise of the main theme is much better than the first time round. This orchestration has been accepted into the canon of Chabrier’s orchestral works.

This is followed by two Debussy orchestrations, commissioned after Debussy’s death by his new publisher. The Sarabande from the Pour le piano suite is much better than the Chabrier, with really juicy, sappy woodwind and splendidly smoochy playing by the solo trumpet. When the strings are divided into many parts, quite in the Debussy manner, they are silky smooth and assured. There is a resonant gong stroke at the end.

The Danse, in its original version titled Tarantelle styrienne, is full of rhythmic tricksiness rather along the lines of Holst’s Mercury. The solo horn which leads is as nimble as you like and again in the middle section I enjoyed the oboe playing. The Lyon orchestra are completely on top of this very tricky piece.

The four pieces from Schumann’s Carnaval are the rarities here. They are the opening Préambule, the closing Marche des ‘Davidsbündler’ contre les Philistins and in between the Valse allemande which has the Intermezzo: Paganini as in effect a middle section. These versions are less imaginative than one might have expected. However, there are some delights: the castanets in the opening, the woodwind chatter in Paganini which ingeniously renders some idiomatically pianistic writing, and the plaintive, rather Beethovenian woodwind chords in the final Marche.

Finally we come to Mussorgsky’s Pictures, the best known of all these versions. Mussorgsky’s piano original has always been found to be somewhat awkward piano writing and pianists have often somewhat rewritten it, most famously Horowitz. Others consider that it works better in orchestral form and there are probably more orchestrations of this work than of any other. However, the Ravel version has more or less swept the board – though let me put in a word for Stokowski. There are some good things in this account of the Ravel, though, ironically, one of them is not by him: Slatkin has himself orchestrated the Promenade between Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle and Limoges; Ravel had left this one out. Slatkin’s version, emphasizing wind and brass, fits in well, and I hope that other conductors take it up. I also particularly enjoyed The Old Castle, with a particularly eloquent saxophone played entirely without vibrato but with expressive phrasing. This number can easily outstay its welcome but not here. Elsewhere I found the playing rather routine and the final two numbers were disappointing: The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba-Yaga) lacked menace and The Great Gate of Kiev lacked majesty.

This is not, however, the full tally of Ravel’s orchestrations of other composers because, some, amazingly, have been lost. In 1913 he assisted Stravinsky in re-orchestrating Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanschina for Diaghilev. The score was left behind in Russia and has disappeared, apart from the closing chorus by Stravinsky. He also re-orchestrated Chopin’s Les sylphides for Nijinsky’s own short-lived ballet company. This is also lost as is the rest of Carnaval, written for the same company. It may be some comfort to know that the Chabrier, Debussy and Mussorgsky orchestrations were the last Ravel made of other composers’ works and so show him at his most mature.

Leonard Slatkin is probably best known for his useful series of American composers on RCA, but he also has a good track record in French music, for example his excellent Dukas disc (RCA 09026 68802). He has been music director of the Toulouse orchestra since 2011 so he is thoroughly familiar with the idiom. The recording sounds consistent despite the use of two venues. The sleeve-notes are helpful.

This is a useful collection if you want an overview of Ravel’s orchestrations, but there are better versions of individual works to be found elsewhere. You can find the Menuet pompeux on an all-Chabrier collection under Michel Plasson (EMI 7243 5 74336 2) and I have to say that that performance is much tighter and more precise; perhaps Plasson’s Toulouse orchestra simply knew the piece better. With the two Debussy versions I find honours are about even with the Quebec symphony orchestra under Yoav Talmi on an interesting disc of Debussy orchestrations by various hands (Atma Classique SACD 2377). If your main interest is in Mussorgsky’s Pictures there are many fine versions; a particular favourite of mine is that by Abbado, a great champion of Mussorgsky, with the Berlin Philharmonic on DG 445 2382. The Schumann on the other hand is a rarity, so if you want that this is probably one of the few places to go.

Stephen Barber



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