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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
L’Enfant et les sortilèges – Fantaisie lyrique (libretto by Colette) (1925) [43:16]
Chloé Briot (mezzo-soprano) – L’Enfant; Nathalie Stutzmann (alto) – Maman, La Tasse chinoise, La Libellule; Sabine Devieilhe (soprano) – La Feu, La Princesse, Le Rossignol; Jodie Devos (soprano) – La Chauve-souris, La Chouette, Une pastourelle; Julie Pasturaud (mezzo-soprano) – La Bergère, La Chatte, L’Écureuil, Un pâtre; François Piolino (tenor) – La Théière, Le Petit Vieillard, La Rainette; Jean-François Lapointe (baritone) – Le Chat, L’Horloge comtoise; Nicolas Courjal (bass) – La Fauteuil, L’Arbre
Members of the Choeur de Radio France
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Mikko Franck
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
L’Enfant prodigue – Scène lyrique (cantate) (libretto by Éduard Guinand) (1884) [33:51]
Symphony in B minor: Finale (1880) (orch. Colin Matthews) [11:44]
Karina Gauvin (soprano) – Lia; Roberto Alagna (tenor) – Azaël; Jean-François Lapointe (baritone) – Siméon
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Mikko Franck
rec. Auditorium of Radio France, Paris, 23 February 2016 (Symphony) and live 15 June 2016 (the others)
Texts in French and English translations included
ERATO 9029 589692 [43:16 + 45:38]

Here is another disappointing L’Enfant et les sortileges, accompanied by some early, uncharacteristic Debussy. As with Leonard Slatkin’s recording of the Ravel I reviewed back in 2015 [review], Mikko Franck’s account is let down by his soloists, starry though some of them are in both vocal works on these discs. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Choeur perform well and idiomatically and everything is captured in vibrant, up-close sound. That in itself is somewhat to blame, where everything seems larger than life and where the winds in particular have an almost x-ray clarity. Franck’s conducting like Slatkin’s is rather hit and miss when it comes to his chosen tempos, though overall I prefer Slatkin there. The most egregious example on the current recording occurs in scene 23 where the “Animals and Trees” sound like they are partaking of a heavy, military march—more Shostakovich than Ravel, I fear. Neither Franck nor Slatkin can hold a candle to Lorin Maazel in his still unbeatable account of this delightful score.

The same is true for the most of the soloists. If I thought Hélène Hébrard in Slatkin’s recording was un-childlike, she is much better than Chloé Briot here, who would make a better Maman with her operatic mezzo voice. Folks, this is not grand opera! These artists should listen to Françoise Ogéas on Maazel’s recording to see how a “naughty” child is portrayed. Nathalie Stutzmann, highly respected though she may be, is also somewhat too heavy and operatic for her roles—almost baritonal. Best of the female soloists is Sabine Devieilhe, who takes the roles of “Fire,” “Princess,” and “Nightingale” effectively. Generally, the male roles are better cast with Nicolas Courjal repeating his roles of “Armchair” and “Tree” from the Slatkin recording and, especially, tenor François Piolino as the “Little Old Man” doing arithmetic, who nearly equals his counterpart in Maazel’s account. Overall, though, this Francophone performance is a real letdown, lacking much of the humour that makes Maazel’s recording so delightful.

The second disc contains not another Ravel work as is the custom, but Debussy’s L’Enfant prodigue, which earned the composer the Prix de Rome in 1884. This early work shows few anticipations of the mature composer. It is more reminiscent of Massenet and Gounod than Debussy. It is a straightforward presentation of the Biblical story of “The Prodigal Son,” with a libretto that borders on the maudlin. The Romantic nature of the cantata suits the style of its illustrious cast better than their counterparts in the Ravel masterpiece. Containing some beautifully lyrical music, lush and with an exotic tinge, it is well orchestrated with some wonderful woodwind solos. The singing and orchestral performance here do full justice to a work that is clearly not out of the composer’s top drawer, but merits and occasional hearing.

The disc concludes with a rather odd piece: Colin Matthews’ orchestration of the final movement from a symphony Debussy wrote at the ripe age of 18. There is virtually nothing here resembling the great composer. The orchestration seems positively Brahmsian. If I had to guess the composer I would say Fauré perhaps, but it is certainly not at the level of that composer’s mature works, either. After the 4:00 mark there are violin and cello solos to add interest and later the mood changes into a military march-like theme and builds to a majestic closing with trumpet fanfares. A curious work that is mentioned nowhere in the CD booklet.

With the exception of that omission, the Erato’s deluxe production includes a bi-fold album, housing the two CDs, and a booklet with adequate notes and complete texts and English translations.

Leslie Wright


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