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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé – complete ballet (1909-12) [58:07]
Une barque sur l’océan (1904-05, orch. 1906) [7:36]
Spirito; Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec.10-13 June 2015 (Daphnis); 6 September 2011, Auditorium de Lyon, France
NAXOS 8.573545 [65:43]

This is the fourth instalment of Leonard Slatkin’s series of Ravel’s orchestral music with l’Orchestre National de Lyon, one of two orchestras of which he is the Music Director. It’s the first of the series that has come to me for review. Previous volumes have been tackled by several of my colleagues: Vol. 1 ~ Vol 2 ~ Vol 3. He has also made recordings in Lyon of both of Ravel’s operas: L’Enfant et les sortilèges (review) and L’Heure espagnole (review).

Though I haven’t heard any of Slatkin’s previous Ravel performances I found much to enjoy here. Naxos present the performance well, dividing the score into 15 separate tracks. Better still, Keith Anderson’s very good notes include a synopsis of the action which tells you what’s going on during each track; that’s extremely helpful.

Slatkin conducts the ballet with evident understanding and his orchestra plays it very well. In addition the choral contribution is excellent – the members of Spirito are heard to excellent effect in the extended and largely unaccompanied ‘Interlude’ at the start of Part II. They also sing quite splendidly in the big moments such as the Introduction, ‘Lever du jour’ and in the concluding ‘Danse générale’.

At the outset, in the Introduction, the scene is set beautifully by languid orchestral playing and a soft but well-focused choral sound. In passing, though, it’s slightly ironic that the principal horn of this French orchestra produces a less French, more cosmopolitan sound than does his colleague in the Montreal Symphony who plays on Charles Dutoit’s 1980 Decca recording. Slatkin conveys Daphnis’s shy hesitancy in ‘Daphnis s’approche’ and subsequently, the clumsiness of Dorcon also comes over well in the ‘Danse grotesque de Dorcon’. That said, Dutoit, who is slightly steadier at this point, is even better, while Pierre Boulez, in his 1994 DG recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker really takes advantage of the Pesant marking and brings expert definition to this passage.

I like the delicacy and atmosphere in ‘Nocturne’; here Slatkin is well-served – as he is throughout the performance – by the Lyon woodwind principals and solo horn. The following ‘Danse lente et mystérieuse des Nymphes’ has the necessary fragility and delicate refinement to it while, in complete contrast, the ‘Danse guerrière’ is strongly projected. In ‘Danse suppliante de Chloé’ I admired the pliant and plangent solo cor anglais; furthermore, in this number there’s very good definition of incident as the narrative of the scene unfolds.

Slatkin manages ‘Lever du jour’ very well and after he’s built up the tension there’s a great sense of release at the main climax (track 13, 4:50). However, neither the performance nor the recording is as sumptuous as Dutoit and Decca achieved in Montreal. Boulez is expansive in this passage and there’s much more warmth than you might expect from this allegedly cool conductor for whom the Berliner Philharmoniker produce fabulous playing. In ‘Pantomime’ the Lyon orchestra offers plenty of refined playing and the principal flute, who should have been credited, is super. It has to be said, though, that few conductors can match the subtlety and flexibility that one encounters in Pierre Monteux’s classic 1959 recording (review).

In the concluding ‘Danse générale’ Slatkin brings the ballet to an exciting conclusion though he doesn’t quite sweep the listener off his or her feet in the way that Dutoit, who is appreciably faster, achieves.

Summing up, my own preference among modern recordings would still be the Dutoit. I’m conscious that the recording is now nearly 37 years old; I use “modern” to differentiate it from two truly classic accounts from the 1950s. One of these is the aforementioned Monteux recording. He conducted the score’s premiere in 1912 and 47 years later he could still illuminate it in a wonderful and wholly convincing way. The other is Charles Munch’s 1955 Boston Symphony performance on RCA. That’s more wilful at times than Monteux – or, indeed, any of the other conductors considered here – but it remains a fantastic, hedonistic performance; in ‘Lever du jour’, for example, Munch delivers a magnificent, spacious evocation of the morning sun.

If Slatkin doesn’t quite match the achievement of those three conductors I hope I’ve conveyed in these comments that his is still a fine account of this miraculous, subtle masterpiece. Collectors who are following his Ravel series can invest with confidence and I doubt that anyone else acquiring this disc will be disappointed.

As a ‘filler’ Slatkin offers Ravel’s own orchestration of Une barque sur l’océan. In its original form this was one of his set of piano pieces given the collective title Miroirs. I learned from the notes that when the piece was unveiled in its orchestral guise it was coolly received; indeed, the orchestration remained unpublished until 1950, long after Ravel’s death. Why the orchestral version should not have found favour is a mystery since the music is evocative and the orchestration is the work of a master craftsman. It gets a fine performance here,

It only remains to say that the recorded sound is very good and, as is so often the case, Keith Anderson’s notes offer a valuable guide to the music and its background.

John Quinn

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey



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