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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La Valse [12.15]
Alborada del gracioso [7:50]
Rapsodie espagnole [16:38]
Une barque sur l’océan [8:44]
Pavane pour une infant défunte [7:13]
Bolero [15:27]
Basque National Orchestra/Robert Treviño
rec. France 2020
ONDINE ODE1385-2 [69:39]

The Basque National Orchestra, created in 1982, is based deep in the Basque country in the city of Bilbao. Ravel himself was of course born in the region, though on the French side of the border in Ciboure, near Biarritz. Robert Treviño was appointed the orchestra’s principal conductor in 2018, and recently signed a contract with the label Ondine. He has recorded a Beethoven cycle for them with his other orchestra, the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, while this is his first CD with the Basque ensemble.

So the repertoire is wisely chosen, and the programme contains some of Ravel’s most striking works. I suppose it has to be asked if we really need yet another recording of Boléro (answer: we don’t, even by a Basque orchestra), but there is some fine music here, with the glorious Rapsodie Espagnole as the central item. Une barque sur l’océan (Boat on the Ocean) started life as one of the movements of Ravel’s piano suite Miroirs of 1905, which he orchestrated the following year, thus making it his first ‘proper’ work for orchestra.

It is commonplace to see Ravel described as the greatest master of all of the art of orchestration, and not without reason. What is not always taken into account is that he developed that natural gift by means of an enormous amount of arranging, both of his own music and that of others. Une barque is a masterpiece, an astonishing achievement given the composer’s lack of experience at the time, and remains one of the most perfect example of musical ‘Impressionism’ (if such a category really exists!) It is one of the best tracks on this disc, perfectly paced, and with exquisitely balanced textures, and Ondine have provided it with superlative recorded sound.

Not all the tracks are on that level; the performance of the famous ‘poème choréographique’ La Valse is disappointing. Treviño fails in places to allow important aspects of the scoring to stand out as they should. This is one of Ravel’s most complex scores, and it is vital that the solos stand out in sharp definition against the often swirling, glittering background. If one listens to the Boulez/NYPO recording on Sony, for example, one is aware of the sinister foreboding that underlies the music, and which ends in the brutal destruction of the final bars – that subtext is missing from this performance.

Alborada del gracioso translates as ‘morning song of the clown’, a strange title, which nonetheless captures the emotional polarities of this piece – a nervous rhythmical opening that dissolves into a mournful middle section, with its bassoon recitative and dark orchestral commentary. This is given a fine performance; and it struck me that, as a bassoonist, Treviño must relish the opportunities Ravel constantly gives that instrument.

Then comes the central masterpiece of this programme, Rapsodie Espagnole, surely the finest of all the Spanish ‘picture-postcards’ that were so popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. Not a note is wasted, and I was slightly stunned to observe after listening to these tracks that the total time of the work is just over sixteen minutes – it feels like so much bigger a piece than that. The Basque players go for broke, revelling in the garish colours and the clammy sub-tropical Spanish heat. Though I must say the opening, with violins playing the descending motif that is the constant backdrop of this Prélude à la nuit, is virtually inaudible even with volume turned up high, which is disconcerting; but the first wind phrases stand out sharply as a result. The clarinet and bassoon duet cadenzas are beautifully done, the atmosphere of the scented twilight as evocative as it should be.

The two tiny middle movements, cast in the style of Spanish dances – Malagueña and Habanera – are similarly stylish, while the final Feria – ‘Fair’ or ‘Carnival’ – is by turns exuberant and nocturnal. There are some passing balance problems in this finale; Ravel sets up little repetitive phrases in woodwind and brass instruments, very typical of Spanish folk-music. The beginnings of some of these are indistinct, though things soon right themselves. But overall, this is a fine and idiomatic performance of the work.

Strange to think that, when Ralph Vaughan Williams visited Ravel for lessons in 1908, the latter was almost certainly at work on this masterpiece. VW had gone there principally to learn more about instrumentation; yet up to this point, Ravel had published very little orchestral music, and Barque sur l’océan might have been all that the English composer had heard. How prescient of him, then, to have identified the Frenchman (three years younger than VW) as a master of the modern orchestra.

Talking of Barque, that is the piece that now follows on track 7, ideally placed as a foil to the feverish ending of the Rapsodie. Treviño and his players are at their best here, sensitively drawing this exquisite picture. Sadly, they are not so successful with the famous Pavane pour une infante défunte, which is simply too slow. It drags, and the poor principal horn struggles to phrase his opening solo as beautifully as he would no doubt wish to.

Boléro, in a fairly underwhelming performance, completes this CD. Yes, it is a little uneven, but certainly worth hearing, mainly for the stylish performances of Rapsodie espagnole and Une barque sur l’océan. These two alone make it a highly promising first disc together for conductor and orchestra.

Gwyn Parry-Jones