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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé, complete ballet (1909-1912) [54:49]
Ensemble Aedes
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. live, 2016, various venues
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905280 [54:49]
Daphnis et Chloé, complete ballet [58:07]
Une barque sur l’océan (1905, orch. 1906) [7:36]
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 10-13 June 2015 & 11 September 2011, Auditorium de Lyon, France
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
NAXOS 8.573545 [65:45]

Two new recordings of Ravel’s Daphnis in as many months surely qualifies as an embarras de richesses, not least because one of them is from the period-instrument specialists Les Siècles and their innovative conductor François-Xavier Roth. Their performance of the premiere version of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps at the BBC Proms in 2013 was revelatory; ditto their subsequent recording of the piece. Given that spirit of renewal, Roth’s meticulous re-examination of Daphnis promises much. That’s not to downgrade Leonard Slatkin and the Orchestre National de Lyon, whose ongoing Ravel series has garnered much praise on the pages.

John Quinn certainly liked the latter’s Daphnis, even if he agreed it doesn’t rival the classic Pierre Monteux (LSO/Decca), Charles Munch (Boston SO/RCA) or Charles Dutoit (OSM/Decca). And those aren’t the only distinguished versions, either. In 2009 Bernard Haitink made a rather splendid recording of the piece with the Chicago Symphony, which Brian Reinhart declared ‘a welcome supplement’ to one’s collection. As for the Monteux, recycled many times since it first appeared 57 years ago, it’s now been remastered and reissued by Praga Digitals. I’ve used that incarnation for comparison here, as well as the Haitink; both are SACDs.

Daphnis et Chloé, based on a Greek tale from the second century AD, is a one-act ballet in three parts. A Diaghilev commission, it was premiered by the Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet on 8 June 1912. Monteux was the conductor, which explains why his LSO recording, made in April 1959, is regarded with such reverence by Daphnis devotees. If it’s to be challenged, Roth is probably the man to do it, if his startling – nay, hair-raising – account of the Introduction is anything to go by. Indeed, the piquancy and point of those period instruments lifts the fog that so often shrouds this arresting opener.

And the epiphanies don’t stop there; the Danse religieuse is attractively coloured and lightly sprung, and the difficult-to-balance choral part – sung by Ensemble Aedes – is nicely judged. There’s also a swing to the playing that one doesn’t hear too often, notably in the first Danse générale. Roth really animates the score with his supple rhythms and his ability to build – and sustain – dramatic tension; just listen to those discreet but riveting drum beats in the Danse grotesque de Dorcon. It’s a truly theatrical performance, tense and, where necessary, volatile.

At this juncture Roth makes Monteux seem rather ‘safe’ by comparison, the less-than-polished LSO not the elite band it was to become under Previn in the 1970s. Les Siècles, recorded live, manage to sound remarkably fresh, coherent and propulsive. The Danse légère et gracieuse de Daphnis is seamless, but not moulded, and Roth finds a spark here that others tend to miss. But it’s those seductive rhythms that do it for me, although the overtly dramatic scènesLes Pirates, for example – are very appealing, too.

The solo playing is excellent, and Roth maintains a good, consistent blend throughout. That’s quite a feat, given the dizzying number of performances/venues involved. Here’s the relevant entry in the booklet: Enregistrements en public (2016) à la Philharmonie de Paris, la Cité de la Musique de Soissons, le Théâtre Impérial de Compiègne, le Théâtre-Sénart, la Maison de la Culture d’Amiens, la Laeiszhalle de Hambourg et le Snape Maltings d’Aldeburgh. It’s common practice to choose just one or two concerts as the basis for a recording, with others used as ‘patches’ where necessary. No matter how it was done, the very organic results – both musical and technical – speak for themselves.

One could argue that Monteux turns Daphnis into a genuine symphonie chorégraphique, but perhaps that goal is achieved at the expense of spontaneity and overall excitement. (But, as I discovered when listening to the remastered Praga, such perceptions can change.) Under Roth the Danse guerrière in Part 2 explodes with heat and light. This is Ravel at his dramatic and distinctive best, and Les Siècles rise to the occasion – and magnificently, too. That said, Roth is sensitive to shape and dynamics, so there are no ‘hi-fi moments’ that get in the way of a good, strong narrative.

There are just so many good things here, and it takes a little while to itemise them all. Here’s one: Roth really emphasises the composer’s suave, metropolitan side, particularly in the delicious Danse suppliante de Chloé. And another: has the final section of Part 2, the Danse lente, ever sounded so atmospheric, its canvas dotted with so much colour and detail? And it just gets better; the start of Part 3 – Lever du jour – dawns most beautifully. What glorious music-making, and all in top-notch sound to boot.

Daphnis can be diaphanous, too – one has to marvel at the lovely Très lent, complete with its chirruping flutes – but despite these delightful diversions Roth never loses sight of the ballet’s overall structure and dynamism. Not surprisingly, he turns the closing bacchanale into a gaudy celebration. It’s superbly built, and the febrile chorus deserves special praise at this point. In the presence of such riches it seems churlish to bemoan the lack of couplings. However, there’s nearly 30 minutes of available space here, and most rival recordings have no difficulty filling it.

So, how does Slatkin compare? Fairly well, is the short answer. His Introduction doesn’t have the frisson of Roth’s, and his recording lacks the forensic detail that makes Harmonia Mundi’s so involving. The playing is good, but the modern instruments create a warmer, more ‘saturated’ sound that feels slightly bloated after the leaner, cleaner Roth. The Danse religieuse and the first Danse générale offer a good taste of Slatkin’s reading as a whole; they are very competent, but Roth’s accounts are more subtly inflected. Slatkin just doesn’t characterise the contrasting dances very well, hence the Danse grotesque sounds much too generic for my taste.

Perhaps most disappointing is the fact that Slatkin’s Daphnis just isn’t terribly balletic. True, other performances belong in the concert hall rather than the theatre, but at least they compensate for that with spontaneity and spectacle. And even when you might expect the American to let rip – in the Danse guerrière, for instance – he’s nowhere near as visceral as his French counterpart. His rhythms aren’t very pliant, either – witness the Danse suppliante – and he never achieves the fluency/fluidity that comes so naturally to Roth and his players; in turn, this leads to a somewhat episodic reading.

That said, the Lyon Lever du jour is more flowingly done, but for sheer beauty and intensity of feeling Roth is hard to beat. Oh, if only Slatkin weren’t so earthbound this might have been a memorable Daphnis and not just a fair to middling one. The same can be said of the filler, Ravel’s orchestration of Une barque sur l’océan, which insists on power at the expense of poetry. Alas, neither of these performances seems fresh or particularly individual, and that goes as much for both the playing and conducting. And while the Naxos recording is very decent, it lacks the sheer presence of the HM one.

I’ve been mightily impressed by CSO Resound’s recent recordings – their Berlioz and Prokofiev, both with Riccardo Muti, are outstanding – and minutes into Haitink’s Daphnis it’s clear this is no exception. In his Slatkin review John Quinn used the words ‘miraculous, subtle masterpiece’ to describe Daphnis, and that surely applies here. The Chicago choir is nicely balanced and well caught, and the range of instrumental timbres revealed on this recording is just astonishing. Haitink is a reliable steersman, not one to take unnecessary risks, and that’s perhaps why the performance itself isn’t quite as compelling as some.

Still, this SACD is a joy to listen to, and I could hear myriad details that others can only dream about. Haitink’s Danse grotesque isn’t as menacing as Roth’s, but his startling drum beats are simply marvellous. And the Dutchman’s Danse lente has a hushed loveliness that none of his rivals can match. These Chicagoans are such a refined lot, but they can certainly boogie when they need to, as in the Danse guerrière. Then again, Roth and his band are more persuasive rhythmically, especially in the Danse suppliante. The pendulum swings back towards Haitink in Lever du jour, not least because of the finely calibrated sound and playing. Poulenc’s Gloria makes a substantial and rewarding filler.

And now for Monteux, whose couplings – the Rapsodie espagnole and Pavane – never struck me as anything special. But that was before I listened to the Praga SACD, which is a significant improvement on Decca’s various versions. When CDs first arrived in the early 1980s, reviewers talked of a veil being lifted from the music. Well, several have been lifted here; all of a sudden Monteux’s Daphnis sounds fresh and vital, bringing sparkle and character to a recording that always seemed a little grey to me. Yes, the hiss is very noticeable in quiet passages, but that hardly matters when the performance now sounds so wonderful. Whatever brand of snake oil Praga have used, it’s certainly worked.

Roth’s lithe, liberating Daphnis outflanks Slatkin’s at every turn; the Monteux, superbly remastered by Praga, is still the one to beat.

Dan Morgan

Previous review (Slatkin): John Quinn



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