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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874, orch. Ravel, 1922) [26:58]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La Valse (1920) [17:17]
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. live, November, 2019, Philharmonie de Paris
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905282 [44:15]

Harmonia Mundi have already issued some notable Ravel recordings by François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles, including a magnificent account of Daphnis et Chloé (review) and an excellent programme of shorter works including the gorgeous Ma Mère l'Oye (HMM905281). This latest album, recorded in concert, as is their wont, offers two very different examples of Ravel’s genius as an orchestrator.

Ravel’s celebrated orchestration of Mussorgsky’s suite of piano pieces was made at the behest of Serge Koussevitzky and it is a remarkable achievement. Ravel applied a composer’s insight – and his own fastidiousness – to this suite of individual miniatures and enhanced Mussorgsky’s original music in the way that in a successful song the music will enhance the original poem. In all the previous recordings by this team that I’ve heard the use of instruments of the period has made a great difference; one gets a vivid sense of the orchestral colours and timbres that the composers must have expected to hear. So it is in this case; in the opening ‘Promenade’ we hear mellow woodwinds, strong but not over-bright brass, and a string section which displays no tonal edge. Roth sets a firm, purposeful pace and this is as good a time as any to say that I think he gets every aspect of this performance just right.

The ensuing set of pictures which pass before our eyes – or, more properly, our ears – are most attractively characterised by the musicians of Les Siècles. In ‘Gnomus’ the grainy lower strings bring a suitably sinister timbre to the flourishes in the lower reaches of the orchestra; there’s just the right degree of devilment or menace here. I love the oily sound of the saxophone in ‘Il vecchio castello’ and the string portamenti contribute a great deal to the pleasing ambience. Roth ensures that the music sways in an ideal fashion.

Moving further on through the gallery, it’s impossible not to be delighted by the lightness of the playing in ‘Tuilleries’. In ‘Bydlo’ the Gallic timbre of the tuba, full of juicy vibrato, transports us back to the days when French brass sections always offered such a sound. I love the deft, gossamer-light woodwind in ‘Ballet of the unhatched chicks’, while in ‘’Samuel Goldenburg et Schmuÿle’ there’s a wonderful contrast between the heavy, portentous string passages and the wheedling sound of the muted trumpet. The dazzling playing in ‘Limoges – Le Marché’ really conveys the animated bustle of the scene and then, in complete contrast, the brass provide splendid weight and sonority in ‘Catacombæ’.

‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ seals the deal. Roth chooses an ideal tempo, which is not too slow but which amply conveys the grandeur of the music. In the closing minutes (track 14, from 3:34) we hear the splendour of Imperial Russia translated into sound. Hereabouts the bells, gong and cymbals make a superb contribution. This is a terrific end to an ear-stimulating account of Pictures at an Exhibition. The period instruments allow us to appreciate to the full Ravel’s genius as an orchestrator.

But if you want to revel in Ravel the orchestral master, there are few more enticing scores than La Valse. François-Xavier Roth has made a shrewd choice of coupling because whereas in Pictures we can savour Ravel bringing to fresh life another composer’s music, in La Valse he lavishes all his skills on a creation of his own. As Jean-François Monnard points out in his illuminating notes, Ravel envisaged this work as a homage to Johann Strauss and as the apotheosis of the Viennese waltz. Its origins go back at least 15 years before the 1920 composition and Ravel’s early sketches bore the title Wien.

Right from the mysterious, shadowy opening of this performance I was hooked – and all the more so as Ravel gradually expands his palette of orchestral colours. Once again, the period instruments are a huge asset; the performance has clarity and the orchestral timbres, which are lighter than we’re accustomed to hearing in this piece, really bring benefits. But it’s not just the sound of the orchestra that grabs your atention; it’s a fabulous performance per se. The music is delivered with great élan and terrific rhythmic verve. It must be technically challenging to play some of these period woodwind and brass instruments, but one would never know: the entire orchestra delivers this demanding score not only with great virtuosity but also with the panache that is essential if it’s to make its effect. Ravel said that he intended La Valse as the apotheosis of the Viennese waltz; in a performance such as this, one feels at the shattering end of the piece that there really is nothing else to say about this iconic Viennese dance.

This is another highly stimulating album from Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth, executed with a fantastic level of musicianship. The recording is excellent and Harmonia Mundi have provided very thorough documentation. From that documentation we learn that Pictures at an Exhibition is here performed using a new (2019) critical edition of the score which has drawn, inter alia, on Ravel’s 1922 manuscript and Koussevitzky’s original conducting score. I think that perhaps this may be the first time this edition has been used in a recording. I suspect the main thrust of the edition has concerned tidying up of details; my ears couldn’t detect any significant changes from the music I’ve become accustomed to hearing.

There’s one elephant in the room that one can’t overlook in considering this recording. The playing time of just 44:15 is extremely short for a full-priced disc. However, as I reflected on that it occurred it me that had I attended one of the concerts at which these recordings were made my ticket would almost certainly have cost me quite a lot more than the price of the disc and, furthermore, I’d have heard the performances just once. With this CD, however, I can enjoy them again and again and I’m sure I shall do just that.

Recordings by Les Siècles are invariably made at concerts. With concert-giving suspended in all probability for most of 2020 I do hope it won’t be too long before we can enjoy some more performances on disc from this inspiring ensemble.

John Quinn

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