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Maurice RAVEL (1873-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 1 [13.24]
Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2 [19.56]
La Valse [13.50]
Le Tombeau de Couperin [20.35]
Philharmonische Chor München
Münchner Philharmoniker/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. live, 21 June 1987 (Daphnis), Philharmonie, Munich; 20 June 1979 (La Valse); 18-19 April 1984 (Tombeau), Herkulessaal, Munich
MÜNCHNER PHILHARMONIKER MPHIL0010 (9305211274) [67.53]

Not ever having had the opportunity to see Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996) conduct live in concert, the carefully chosen series of archive recordings that he made with the Münchner Philharmoniker is a real boon. Last year one of my ‘Recordings of the Year’ was Celibidache’s glorious live recording of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung also from the radio archives of the Münchner Philharmoniker – review.

In February 1979, Celibidache conducted his first concert series with the Münchner Philharmoniker and in June that year was appointed general music director, remaining in that position until his death in 1996. A perfectionist by nature, Celibidache became obsessive about preparing his players, increasingly requesting as many rehearsals as he could get away with. Celibidache was renowned for avoiding making studio recordings. However, as he worked widely with radio orchestras a substantial number of recordings of his live performances intended for broadcast were held in storage. So, whenever you hear a recording of Celibidache conducting, more than likely it’s a recording of an archived radio broadcast. There is a note in the booklet of this Münchner Philharmoniker own label release explaining that “Throughout his life Celibidache refused to allow recordings of his concerts to be released on CD. Nevertheless, his family has now decided to release a number of selected and particularly valuable archival recordings as a precious memento of a great conductor and of his unique work with the Münchner Philharmoniker.”

After the prohibitions of the of Nazi era, Celibidache resurrected music by banned composers – such as Mendelssohn, Hindemith and Debussy – in his programmes. He had deliberately expanded the repertoire of the German orchestras to satisfy the demands of the occupying powers in Berlin, Munich and other German cities, by programming American, Russian, British and French music. Here Celibidache is conducting three works by Ravel, a composer core to his repertoire and also that of the orchestra. I can’t forget the impact of watching video clips on YouTube of Celibidache conducting Ravel’s Bolero with the Münchner Philharmoniker, in 1983, at the Herkulessaal in Munich and also in 1994 at the Philharmonie in Cologne.

Spanning eight years, these Celibidache radio recordings were made in conjunction with Bayerischer Rundfunk at three live Munich concerts, two at the Herkulessaal and one at the Philharmonie. The album opens with the first and second suites from one of Ravel’s finest achievements – the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, which is the composer’s longest work. It was written to a commission from the Russian impresario Serge de Diaghilev whose brilliant Ballets Russes were enjoying immense success during their first Paris season. The impresario was enthusiastic to secure new works from leading French composers for the following season. Ravel started work on Daphnis et Chloé in 1909, using an adaptation of the ancient Greek tale by Longus, which had been prepared by the choreographer Mikhail Fokine. Progress with the production was erratic and the work didn’t reach the stage for another three years. It was Ravel who described Daphnis et Chloé as a “Symphonie Chorégraphique” though Diaghilev complained that it was more “Symphonique” than “Chorégraphique.” Ravel adorned the ballet with a huge orchestra, employed in an extremely elegant fashion, producing remarkable tone colours. Included is a wide variety of percussion, with a wordless mixed chorus that can be heard both on and offstage. Two concert suites were extracted by Ravel from the complete ballet in 1911 and 1913 with only the minimum of changes from the full score. Celibidache is very much at home with Ravel’s music, especially the opulent orchestration, and with the Münchner Philharmoniker he has the ideal partner.

The passionately romantic themes and lavish harmonic colouration combine with telling rhythmic drive to significant effect whilst still remaining stylish and impressively unified. In the first suite Celibidache provides a suitably steamy atmosphere. In the opening Nocturne and in the Danse guerrière (The war-like dance), the high level of drama generated and the thrilling sound of the closing bars are striking. The more popular second suite opens with a rapturous and opulent evocation of daybreak (Lever du jour). This magical representation from Celibidache is as beautiful and captivating as one is likely to hear and in the central Pantomime, I admire the persuasive pastoral character. In the voluptuous and colourful ending Danse générale (General dance), Celibidache thrillingly creates an ecstatic atmosphere, cranking up the tension and excitement, expertly underlining the wild and pagan character of the swirling bacchanalian dance. Noticeable throughout is the woodwind playing, especially the glorious flute solos that deserve special praise, the warm bed of strings that underpin the writing and the inclusion of the admirable wordless chorus that brings additional atmosphere to the fabric of the score.

Celibidache and the Münchner Philharmoniker have become my first-choice account of the two Daphnis et Chloé suites. However, in Daphnis et Chloé I tend to look towards recordings of the complete ballet score. Top of my list of recommended versions is the deliciously dramatic performance of the complete ballet score from Pierre Monteux with the London Symphony Orchestra on Decca. Monteux and his players prove to be in superb form providing some sumptuous playing in music for which they clearly have great affection. The sound quality of this re-issue I find to be vivid and well balanced; belying its near fifty years of age. It has been reported to me that informal listening tests do not show any obvious difference in sound quality between this Monteux re-issue and its original CD release. Undoubtedly this was a very special Kingsway Hall, London, recording session from the spring of 1959 that caught Monteux’s crack London orchestra in their most inspired form, fully validating its selection as one of their recently re-issued ‘Legendary Recording’ series, on Decca, ‘The Originals’. Close behind Monteux on Decca is the evergreen 1955 account of the complete ballet from Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra who are in tremendous form, offering an electrifying performance that is vitally dramatic and sharply coloured. Recorded at the Symphony Hall, Boston, this is one of the legendary RCA Living Stereo series and it has been remastered and re-issued on a hybrid SACD.

In 1919-20 Ravel composed La Valse, a poème chorégraphique pour orchestre (choreographic poem for orchestra). It was originally written for Diaghilev who had initially offered to stage the work with his Ballets Russes. Ravel played him the piano score, but it wasn’t what the impresario expected. He changed his mind about staging, stating that it was at best a “portrait” of a ballet. La Valse comes across as a dazzlingly colourful tribute to the Viennese waltz and the sophistication of a by-gone age in the Austrian capital yet contains an anguished, darker edge. Here one senses that Celibidache is making full use of his magnificent orchestral forces, illuminating the complex orchestra textures and colours whilst maintaining structural cohesion. Striking is the amount of orchestral detail Celibidache reveals and the final section of the score makes an arresting dramatic impact. Celibidache’s performance of La Valse is exceptional but it doesn’t displace my first choice recording, the live 1955 Symphony Hall, Boston, account from Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in spellbinding form and impressive sonics on RCA Victor Living Stereo, remastered and re-issued on a hybrid SACD.

The final work on the release Le Tombeau de Couperin is a neoclassical work that looks back to the French baroque tradition of François Couperin. Ravel originally composed the score in 1914-17 as a six-movement solo piano work in the manner of a traditional baroque dance suite. Serving as a tender epitaph each movement is dedicated to the memory of various friends of Ravel who had died during the First World War. In 1919 Ravel created an orchestral version of the score using four of the six original movements. Celibidache and the Münchner Philharmoniker play this score of impeccable craftsmanship with unerring finesse and charm although the second movement, Forlane, probably the jewel of the set, is played far too slow for my taste. It takes 7.18 compared to Paul Paray at 5.03 (Mercury), Jean Martinon at 5:57 (EMI) and Charles Dutoit who takes 5.23 (Decca). The Forlane originates from a lively Italian folk-dance in the baroque period, which gained popularity in the French Court, but one can’t imagine anyone dancing at this pace. Because of this I can’t displace my two first-choice recordings of Le Tombeau de Couperin that are evergreen accounts both beautifully played with precision and well recorded for their age. These are Jean Martinon with the Orchestre de Paris from 1974 on EMI and Paul Paray conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 1959 on Mercury Living Presence.

Throughout these three live recordings the Münchner Philharmoniker with its stylish and refined orchestral sound majestically demonstrates its prowess with total responsiveness to the dazzling colours and nuances of Ravel’s often opulent scoring. Celibidache was recorded during live concerts at the Philharmonie and the Herkulessaal in Munich. The sound engineers on these archived radio broadcasts, which have been transferred from analogue tapes to high-resolution audio files 96 kHz/24 bit, provide splendid quality sound that has clarity, presence and excellent balance. The booklet notes written by Peter Jost and Stephan Kohler give good background to each work but there is surprisingly little provided about Celibidache himself.

Lovers of French music and admirers of the legendary Celibidache will be in their element with this stunning Münchner Philharmoniker own label archive release.

Michael Cookson

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