Maurice RAVEL (1875-1837)
Daphnis et Chloé [56:50]
Une barque sur l'océan [8:36]
Pavane pour une infante défunte [7:09]
WDR Rundfunkchor Köln
Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg/Gustavo Gimeno
rec. Philharmonie Luxembourg, 2017
Reviewed in surround
PENTATONE SACD PTC5186652 [72:58]
Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé was completed in 1912, not without considerable problems for the composer as well as the choreographer and, indeed, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The plot was triggered by Longus’ 2nd Century A.D. ‘novel’ The Pastorals or the Loves of Daphnis and Chloe which describes the births, the childhood and the youth of the two lovers during which their mutual friendship turns to love and eventually, in the very last paragraph of the story,to their becoming actual lovers. The twists and turns of this long tale could not have been made into a dance-drama except by severe pruning and indeed equally major changes in the plot. What Ravel created in his final scenario was a short series of events mostly from the original, but with all the eroticism heavily toned-down. This last is perhaps as well because there was enough scandal as a result of Nijinsky’s interpretation of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'une faune premiered just before Daphnis. Possibly because scandal was avoided, Ravel’s masterpiece was upstaged by Debussy’s, just as in the following year Debussy's Jeux was, as Roger Nichols puts it, “incinerated in the glow of Le Sacre”. Whatever the initial reaction, the work has come to be recognised as one of Ravel’s greatest. Those of us who learned the work backwards by starting with Part 3 minus the chorus, called the 2nd Suite, will have discovered by familiarity alone that the earlier two sections are strongly thematically linked to the third, proving that Ravel’s own description of Daphnis as a symphonie chorégraphique was very appropriate. Just as Debussy’s La Mer is perhaps the greatest French symphony, Daphnis et Chloé runs it a close second. We are now used to hearing the entire work and on repeated hearing, as tends to happen when reviewing, it simply gains in stature.
The question for this Pentatone issue is, does it rise to the occasion? I think it does. The Luxembourg orchestra sounds very good and their fine Philharmonie adds satisfying space and lustre to their sound. (Would that London had one such hall). The two fillers Une barque sur l'océan and the famous Pavane are equally beautifully played. I mentioned above the repeated hearings and it is these that raise doubts. I heard the Pentatone twice but also compared it with several hi-res alternatives, both stereo and surround. These were: Jean Martinon and the Orchestre de Paris on an eccentrically packaged DVD Audio issue from EMI; the famous old Boston recording under Charles Munch on Living Stereo SACD; Pierre Monteux and the LSO, a Decca original reissued on SACD by Praga and the Boston Symphony's own label issue of a performance directed by James Levine in 2008, BSO Classics SACD. To my surprise the Pentatone stood up well to this illustrious competition as a performance but not as a recording. The audibly clear winner was Levine, and as it happens, his was a rather more viscerally exciting rendering of the score combined with a superbly clean, detailed and spacious surround recording in which Ravel's huge forces have physical impact. The Pentatone comes over as rather veiled, especially the strings, so Ravel’s gorgeous lines are not able to make their impact so successfully. Gimeno also goes for richness rather than clarity with his Luxembourg and Cologne forces.
Listeners will enjoy this Pentatone issue I am sure, but less of the score comes across than is ideal, so be sure to obtain the Levine as well. Whatever you do, you are in for 55 minutes of wonderful music.