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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
L’heure espagnole, one-act opera (comédie musicale) (1907/08) [49.38]
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
España, rhapsody for orchestra (1883) [06.33]
Gaëlle Arquez, mezzo-soprano – Concepción
Julien Behr, tenor – Gonzalve
Mathias Vidal, tenor – Torquemada
Alexandre Duhamel, baritone – Ramiro
Lionel Lhote, baritone – Don Iñigo Gomez
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Asher Fisch
rec. live 24 April 2016, Prinzregententheater, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900317 [56.11]

Here is a welcome new release of Ravel’s one-act comedy opera L’heure espagnole and Chabrier’s rhapsody for orchestra España. Both works were recorded live in concert for radio broadcast by BR Klassik at the renowned Munich series of Sunday concerts (Sonntagskonzerte) from the Prinzregententheater.

Ravel and Chabrier were just two of a number of French composers who, inspired by a taste for all things Spanish, wrote some excellent music, much of it highly evocative of Iberian folklore, harmony and rhythms.

Born in a Basque village, just inside the French border with Spain, Ravel felt strongly connected to his Iberian roots. Completed in 1908, Ravel’s L'heure espagnole was premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1911 in a double-bill with the first Paris production of Massenet’s Thérèse. Set in eighteenth century Toledo, Spain, this short one act opera L'heure espagnole, described by Ravel as a comédie musicale, is set to a libretto by Franc-Nohain, based on his play of the same name, which was first performed at Théâtre de l'Odéon in October 1904.

The title L'heure espagnole can be translated as The Spanish Hour or Spanish Time, referring to how the Spanish keep time. In a jolly, farcical manner, the plot follows the escapades of Concepción, wife of clockmaker Torquemada. Concepción, an adulteress, hides her lovers, who pretend to be buyers of longcase clocks. With a dialogue pervaded with stereotypes and double meanings, one critic described the opera as “a miniature pornographic vaudeville.” Initially the work was received coldly, but it went on to gain considerable success.

The score belongs to Ravel’s prime, written in roughly the same period as the balletic masterworks Daphnis et Chloé and Ma mère l'Oye. The composer employs the Spanish idiom to which he was inexorably drawn, exploiting snappy habanera rhythms and flamenco singing. Also cleverly integrated in the score are the mechanical sounds of clocks ticking and chiming, and even producing cuckoo calls.

This is a performance that draws me in to Ravel’s atmospheric sound world. My only real problem with the mainly French born soloists is the lack of differentiation between tenors Julien Behr and Mathias Vidal and baritones Alexandre Duhamel and Lionel Lhote, whose voices are surprisingly similar.

Mathias Vidal as the gullible clockmaker Torquemada easily produces his firm, warm tenor with notably clear diction.

Torquemada’s licentious wife Concepción is sung by the expressive mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez, who reveals a rich low and middle range, although her upper register narrows considerably with her highest notes bordering on the shrill. Especially enjoyable is Concepción’s monologue Oh! la pitoyable aventure! This is sung with real passion and character.

Love-struck poet Gonzalve is performed by Julien Behr with his attractive, smooth tenor, not over bright, demonstrating his ability to climb smoothly to his high register.

Mature-sounding baritone Alexandre Duhamel sings the role of brawny muleteer Ramiro with an impressively weighty yet smooth tone.

Rotund banker Don Iñigo Gomez, who gets stuck in a clock, was intended as a bass role. Here baritone Lionel Lhote brings a substantial, rich voice with noticeably steady delivery to the role.

Asher Fisch is an experienced conductor in the opera house and a couple of months ago I saw him conduct a compelling Bayerische Staatsoper production of Verdi’s Falstaff in Munich. Here Fisch, conducting the Münchner Rundfunkorchester, underlines the rhythmic element and orchestral detail of Ravel’s writing, producing an engaging performance of considerable Iberian colour and atmosphere. The playing is top drawer throughout with especially notable contributions from the prominent woodwind and percussion sections.

The sound, recorded during a live concert at Prinzregententheater, Munich, is excellent, fairly close, vibrantly clear and well balanced. Some audience noise is noticeable but nothing to spoil the experience: The applause at the conclusion of each work has been removed.

L'heure espagnole has been recorded several times and the accounts that spring to mind are those by Lorin Maazel/Deutsche Grammophon, Ernest Ansermet/Decca, André Cluytens/EMI, Bruno Moderna/Testament, Armin Jordan/Erato and André Previn/Deutsche Grammophon. This performance by Asher Fisch and the Münchner Rundfunkorchester is extremely desirable and stands comparison with any of the above competition.

Serving as more than a mere fill-up is Chabrier’s best known composition España. Originally a piece for piano duet, the rhapsody for orchestra from 1883 was inspired by a Spanish tour. The buoyant playing of the Münchner Rundfunkorchester conveys an uplifting and joyous feel to Chabrier’s colourful writing. With plenty of space available on the release, Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso and Rapsodie espagnole, both Spanish inspired compositions, could also have been accommodated.

There is no reason to hesitate with this impressive live recording of Ravel’s comedy opera L'heure espagnole on BR Klassik.

Michael Cookson



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