Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloë, complete ballet (1912) [58.07]
Une barque sur l’océan (1905, orch. 1906) [7.36]
Lyon National Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Auditorium de Lyon, France, 10-13 June 2015 (Daphnis) and 11 September 2011
NAXOS 8.573545 [65.43]

The always fastidious Ravel left very precise directions in his scores as to how the music should be performed;and in the case of Daphnis et Chloë we also have a superb stereo recording conducted by Pierre Monteux, who had directed the first performances under the composer’s supervision, to supply additional enlightenment as to exactly the manner in which the frequent accelerations and ritardandi should be observed where metronome markings are missing from the printed score. Under the circumstances, and given a choir and orchestra of sufficient quality to deal with the many technical difficulties which Ravel set for his performers, one can usually expect that any recording will be very close to the impression that the composer intended. Unfortunately this is not always the case, as could be seen in his early CBS recording which I reviewed for this site last year, where Pierre Boulez’s extremely rapid traversal of the notes managed in places to wrongfoot his capable players and his small and rather fallible chorus. Here Leonard Slatkin manages to avoid any such pitfalls in a performance and recording that comes close to fulfilling all Ravel’s requirements.

Ravel did however set some real problems for performers in the matter of balance, particularly that between his wordless chorus and the orchestra. At the beginning of the score he marks that the chorus should be placed behind the scenes, producing a distant and other-worldly effect; and then shortly afterwards he directs that they should approach until they are singing onstage, presumably to be the voices of the corps de ballet. Later he directs that they should similarly withdraw to their offstage positions, as the corps de ballet leaves the stage. All of this is of course impossible to achieve in the concert hall – there simply is not enough time for the chorus to enter and take up their positions behind the orchestra during the bars allotted for the procedure. But it should be possible to imitate the effect in a recording, if necessary by pulling back the microphones at relevant points. Here the sizeable choir (an amalgamation of the Choruses and Soloists of Lyon and the Britten Chorus) seem to be in their normal concert positions throughout, which is a shame. The offstage horn and trumpet during the choral interlude between Scenes One and Two (track 10), which are similarly marked to be distant and approaching, is however well handled to dramatic effect.

Slatkin paces the score admirably, even when he sets a spanking pace for the opening of the pirates’ dance (track 11) which leaves limited scope for the acceleration in speed which Ravel marks. The orchestra find no difficulties in coping with the articulation of the notes here or in the final dance (track 15) where Boulez’s players on his first recording seemed to be floundering. And the balances between the various instruments seem to me to be more or less impeccable, with one exception. Ravel scores in several places for an “aeoliphone” (wind machine) which he employs not as an atmospheric effect but as an integral part of the texture, carefully marking dynamics in a range from piano to fff in a manner that is clearly intended to be heard. Here I find it impossible to detect the presence of the instrument at all, since at every point it is smothered by the orchestral texture which surrounds it – which I am quite certain is not what Ravel intended. On the other hand the balances between the chorus and orchestra in the final bars are quite perfect, not allowing the chorus to extrude itself from the texture in the manner that some conductors permit. I note that I complained that Boulez in his New York recording was lacking in Mediterranean warmth, a serious defect in this music; there is no such want here, Slatkin and his performers revelling in the sense of sea and sunshine that permeates the score.

This is the fourth volume in Slatkin’s Ravel cycle for Naxos recorded in Lyon, and I note that previous issues have received some mixed reviews. I would put this Daphnis high on the list of currently available recordings, although my occasional concerns about balance would lead me to prefer the early Decca CD conducted by Charles Dutoit which seems to me to be about the acme of perfection both as performance and recording even after more than thirty years. Unlike early issues of the Dutoit recording, Naxos here provide copious tracks for individual sections of the score which means that the listener can select the rich textures of the Dawn sequence (track 13) or the beautifully poised flute playing in the Pantomime (track 14) for repeated listening – the flautist is not separately credited although the player would deserve such an accolade. As a brief filler we are given Ravel’s own orchestration of ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ from his piano suite Miroirs – a delightful bonus, atmospherically played and conducted.

Some five years ago I reviewed with enthusiasm the complete cycle of Debussy’s orchestral music from Lyon on Naxos, conducted then by Jun Märkl. These Ravel recordings seem to me to bid fair to provide a worthy companion to those discs – presumably there are further instalments to come to complete Ravel’s own orchestrations of his works.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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