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Ravel’sDaphnis et Chloé A selective survey of some classic recordings By Ralph Moore
The writing of this survey was prompted by the fact that as I was working my way through those recordings in the HDTT catalogue that I wished to review, I realised that it offered no fewer than four vintage versions of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, all recorded by French-speaking conductors over a short period of only seven years, between 1954 and 1962, just as early stereo was coming into its own and producing some really fine accounts which preserved a vanished tradition – Monteux, for example, actually conducted the premiere of the work in 1912 - yet still sound great.
As such, given that all four recordings have so much in common and have all been remastered from reel-to-reel tape by HDTT to their usual high standard, it made sense to treat them holistically rather than discretely; furthermore, given that other conductors of similar background had also committed their versions to record, it seemed appropriate to expand the ambit of my mini-survey to include representative samples of those, plus the several recordings I already had on my shelves and some new additions to my collection. As a result, continuing the Gallic theme, in addition to the two recordings by Munch and those by Monteux and Cluytens, I consider below those by their contemporary Martinon and some from later on: one from Dutoit and two by Boulez. A more recent – and controversial - take on the music is provided by Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth. I then threw in a trio of decidedly non-Gallic conductors who nonetheless gained a deserved reputation in successfully delivering French music: Ozawa, Haitink and Levine (his live recording at Tanglewood being preferable to his early digital DG recording with the VPO, which was a misfire and poorly engineered), all of whom conduct the BSO, an orchestra which has long played this music superbly and made more recordings of it than any other. I could not ignore the young Bernstein; then came André Previn with the LSO, Myung-Whun Chung with a French orchestra recorded in 2004 and the versatile, still under-valued Donald Runnicles, issued only last year by BBC Music Magazine. That makes a total of sixteen stereo and digital recordings, which is by no means comprehensive but surely includes some of the very best. (Sorry, but Sir Simon does not make the cut, as I embrace the view I have read elsewhere that when it comes to Ravel’s masterpiece, he is “clueless”!)
I must stress that I am here considering only recordings of the full ballet score lasting something under an hour; the two orchestral suites, while featuring virtually the same music and for all their popularity as a concert items, can at best be considered only as a musical stop-gap compared with the experience of hearing the whole Symphonie choréographique - about which Diaghilev complained that it is “more symphonic than choreographic”; the inclusion of a chorus is essential, too, as the atmosphere of the work certainly suffers greatly from the absence of the wordless choral part, as the suites are sometimes performed.
The work is Ravel’s longest and generally considered to be his masterpiece. It requires a huge orchestra, including an especially large percussion battery of fifteen instruments featuring some exotic additions such as a wind machine, crotales and castanets. The latter seem always to be associated with eroticism and there is inevitably some question regarding whether Ravel’s cool, urbane temperament resulted in his writing music too chaste to portray erotic fervour – at least until the famous concluding bacchanal, notoriously orgasmic in character, with the chorus positively howling. To a very large degree, of course, that depends upon its interpretation and I certainly think that there are conductors whose restraint undermines its potential frisson. There is no more reason for Daphnis et Chloé to be too subdued than there is for a similarly Impressionistic piece, Debussy’s La mer, to emerge as in any sense reticent. Just as some people make the mistake of assuming that La mer is “Mediterranean”, there is no especial case for demanding that Daphnis et Chloé exude an 18C sense of classical elegance and other-worldliness à laWatteau when it is based on a ground-breaking, 2C pastoral romp – although that more refined conception was what Ravel originally had in mind rather than choreographer Mikhail Fokine’s vision of an erotically charged spectacle which aimed “to recapture, and dynamically express, the form and image of the ancient dancing depicted in red and black on Attic vases”. It seems that both Diaghilev and Nijinsky leaned more towards Fokine’s overt conception of animal passion than Ravel’s more conservative stance – as the dancer’s portrayal subsequently confirmed. Ultimately, their collaboration produced a work far less psychologically subtle than Ravel’s original intent and more disposed towards permitting dramatic events of choreographic potential, involving pirates, abduction, a deus ex machina in Pan and a bacchanal. Nonetheless, the more pictorial passages are justly famous and key to any recording must be the playing of the most famous sequence, from the depiction of dawn opening through to the ecstatic reunion of the young lovers; for me, that serves as a chief discriminator of quality.
The engineering of these recordings matters a great deal; not only does a producer have to decide what to do with Ravel’s essentially unworkable instructions regarding the movement of the chorus being heard off-stage then entering within a very short space of time (see Paul Corfield Godfrey’s helpful contribution to the Message Board regarding this problem) but also a piccolo, E♭ clarinet, horn and trumpet are at various times required to play offstage. Finally, a piece so richly scored surely demands superior sound, so I have restricted my scope to stereo/digital recordings.
First, I consider the four HDTT recordings – all reviewed as downloads:
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch; 1955 New England Conservatory Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch; 1961 New England Conservatory Chorus
I am discussing these two recordings together for obvious reasons; the same forces are used and their relationship is almost identical to that between Munch’s 1954 and the 1962 remake recordings of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique. Both are terrific performances in stereo but inevitably the later one is in slightly warmer, better, clearer sound; the very slight hiss in the earlier version is more evident even in this remastered form – but then, so is that almost unidentifiable sense of the magical and Munch’s freedom in sculpting waves of sound to overwhelm the listener. The chorus is appropriately distanced – vague, floaty, disembodied – and then by contrast, the definition of individual instrumentational lines, such as in the syncopated section beginning 7:40 in Part 1, is almost startling. Little details keep caressing the ear; the sweep of the harps, the impact of the timpani – quite extraordinary for a recording nearly seventy years old as I write.
Strangely, while the later recording shares all the interpretative virtues of the first, I find it very slightly earthbound and lacking in the rarefied, otherworldly atmosphere Munch generated in 1954 – perhaps the additional clarity of the later stereo sound militates against numinosity. In this, it seems that I agree with some previous reviewers – but both are radiant performances and some might appreciate the extra depth and clarity of the 1962 version, which has nothing like Roth’s sterility (see the last review, below). But for me the 1954 version has the edge.
London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux; 1959 Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
In a sense, Monteux must be given a free pass here, as he conducted the premiere almost half a century before, but we must approach it soberly as “just another recording”.
However, I happened to pay this just after listening to the Roth recording (see the last one below) and the difference was palpable – they sound as if they are playing two completely different pieces; this is the veritable antithesis of Roth’s account. Monteux is wild, ecstatic and released; his orchestra breathes and sighs, his choir are a seraphic host, properly distanced in the auditory spectrum (even if occasionally one or two individual soprano voices obtrude) - and no allowances for the vintage sound have to be made in this magnificent transfer, which has depth, warmth and virtually no hiss. Monteux has the knack of maintaining continuous tension without sacrificing a jot of the music’s ephemeral, poetic nature. Every mood is wholly successfully embraced, from the bucolic to the comic to the erotic to the manic to the ecstatic and the sheer virtuosity of the London Symphony Orchestra in all departments is striking – the voluptuousness of the various woodwinds playing in the “Danse suppliante de Chloé” and the sheer elan Monteux brings to the more sections such as the “Danse guerrière” and the concluding bacchanal are thrilling. As for my “acid test”, the sunrise section is suffused with ecstasy; it just blooms and glows and the choir creeps in imperceptibly to complete the apotheosis. Yes; this is a classic.
L’Orchestre de la Société du Conservatoire de Paris/André Cluytens; 1962 René Duclos Chorus
Despite the relative constriction of the early 60s stereo sound compared with later digital technology, there is a wonderful sense of spaciousness and release about the opening passage, especially in this HDTT refurbishment; the first combined orchestral and choral climax is overwhelming. The choir is somewhat assertive compared to some, with a discernible masculine presence in their composite sound but they are nicely positioned in the aural perspective. The next delight is the grainy, astringent woodwind sound – so French. Individual instruments ae highlighted so that, for example, the harp and the timpani seem very close to the listener. Snarling brass and rounded sonorities preclude any sense of French “wispiness” about this interpretation; it is very sensual and direct but to some degree that compromises any sense of unearthliness; everything is very “present” – especially in the opening to Part Two where, compared with the opening, the choir are much too up-front, when the instruction is that the voices should be “très lointaines d’abord” (first very far away) – but the ensuing “Danse guerrière” pirate frenzy is very exciting and the dawn scene voluptuous; likewise, the finale is thrilling. However, for all its many virtues, its minor flaws prevent me from nominating this as a top choice.
New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein; 1959; Sony Schola Cantorum
It might be something of a predictable cliché to characterise this as “typically American” – i.e. flash and brash, bright and bold – but this first all-American complete recording pushes on almost relentlessly, creating a great, almost breathless arc of sound in what is one of the fastest accounts on record. There is little room for misty uncertainties; even the chorus often sounds comparatively close and business-like in their assertive “ah-ahing”. This is a fairly young (for conductors, at 41) Bernstein giving Ravel the Gershwin treatment and Dorcon’s dance has more than a touch of the circus about it - not necessarily a bad thing. I would not say that this is a reading devoid of sentimentality – Daphnis’ dance is, if anything, a bit too swooning – but subtlety is not its strong point. As you would expect, Bernstein goes full-on barmy for the fast, loud sections and it’s thrilling stuff. The dawn breaking is sheer Hollywood. Even the early stereo sound is brilliant, almost glaring, and in a blind listening I don’t think you would ever mistake the NYP for a French orchestra.
I do not want to overdo the stereotyping of Bernstein’s interpretation; there are some lovely things here – and the drive and vigour of this performance have their attractions. It is not, however, sufficiently Gallic-idiomatic to merit an unqualified recommendation. Orchestre de Paris/Martinon; 1974; EMI Choeurs du Théâtre National de l'Opéra
There is no doubt but that this is very well and sensitively played and sung but the reading is somewhat compromised by the EMI recording, which is a bit thin and underpowered, especially lacking in bass – and the chorus is to some degree at first masked by the orchestral sound, then conversely doesn’t sound sufficiently removed, so balances aren’t quite right. Having said that, the ear adjusts and the artistry of the playing and conducting emerge unscathed but in truth I find it just a little lacking in tension in parts. – there is a degree of detachment. However, this far from being a poor recording and Martinon’s affection for the music is conveyed through his carefully crafted phrasing, but I think others conjure up more magic and passion, as well as enjoying more sumptuous recorded sound.
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa; 1974; DG Tanglewood Festival Chorus
The Boston Symphony Orchestra obviously has the strongest tradition of playing this work; it features in no fewer than five of the recordings here. Furthermore, the excellence and experience we encounter here is part of its tradition of playing French music in general - as Ozawa’s other Ravel and Berlioz from the same period confirms.
Everything is right from the opening of this recording: a big, grand, dreamy acoustic with a properly positioned choir and excellent balances, such that the timpani are aptly prominent but solo instruments such as in the first two violin solos emerge clearly without being too starkly forward. Presumably their stint under Munch accounts for their ease in delivering a Gallic idiom; they are light and graceful - but also capable of summoning up real American heft when required, as in the “Danse guerrière”, which has a Stokowskian vigour and colour. This is large-scale Ravel but never bombastic even in the violent passages and the “Nocturne” is hauntingly eery. Ozawa finds a nice slinkiness in Chloé’s “Danse suppliante”, a passage which can sometimes outstay its welcome but here has sufficient eroticism to suggest Salome. A lovely flute solo for Chloé’s dance (track 17) and a frenzied bacchanal put the cap on a superlative recording. New York Philharmonic/Pierre Boulez; 1974; CBS Camerata Singers Berliner Philharmoniker/Pierre Boulez; 1993; DG Rundfunkchor Berlin
Nearly two decades separate Boulez’s recordings, which I consider here as a pair, but Boulez was Boulez and we would expect certain interpretative decisions to remain consistent between the two - above all, clarity and avoidance of sentimentality. Certainly, the first impressions I have of this earlier account was of a certain stark, hard brilliance – especially as I happened first to play it after listening to Ozawa’s lush, grand version. The chorus is aptly distanced – perhaps a tad too remote in comparison with the prominence of the orchestra. It does not approach the detachment of Roth’s recording below, especially as the NYP has a far juicier sound than Les Siècles, but it seems devoid of “negative capability” – everything is neatly in place, beautifully tuned and oddly unmoved and unmoving. In truth, I am rather bored by its crystalline precision and at no point do I feel swept up by the music. The vigorous passages do not raise my pulse one jot.
Is the Berlin recording any better? Surely the decision to revert to the Jesus-Christus-Kirche rather than the Philharmonie was wise, as the digital sound here is much clearer, crisper and deeper and there is decidedly more atmosphere about proceedings; right from the start, I like it more. On the other hand, the detail resulting from the close-miking results in some glare and a diminution in the requisite “gauziness” of sound the piece demands.
The BPO sounds a smoother, more sophisticated band than the NYP and contrary to my expectations above, Boulez seems to have revised his stance to permit a more released and affectionate mood to obtain; there is more dynamic and phrasal flexibility. In truth, he sounds like a different conductor but he is still relatively objective – precise rather than spontaneous. The chorus in the Interlude is marvellous– and the aural positioning of both them and the off-stage instruments is very atmospheric – less so, the “Lever du jour”.
If the acoustic here is to your audiophile taste you will find no fault here; I prefer something more “old-fashioned” and diaphanous.
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal/Charles Dutoit; 1980; Decca Chœur de l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
This recording made a splash as one of the best early digital issues at a time when they were too often over-bright and “glassy”, so its status as an audio-demonstration disc needs to be weighed alongside its intrinsic interpretative merits. It is indubitably still impressive on both counts; it is not unduly compressed, so its dynamic range hits home and the playing singing and conducting are all striking. Balances are ideal – but is it just too suave, slick and sophisticated? Such lovely playing served by such admirable engineering commands respect. It is certainly not lacking in fire or passion and the sumptuous playing of the Montreal orchestra vies with any, rich with varied colours and textures, bringing alive this “vast musical fresco” (Ravel’s words) and culminates in a riotous finale.
This is surely the best thing Dutoit ever recorded. It is one of those recordings hard to fault, where nothing seems especially individual but everything seems to be done right and it deserves its cult status.
London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/André Previn; 1981; EMI
This strikes me as a very good, if slightly bland account, cool and classical but perhaps lacking in the atmospheric individuality which distinguishes more characterful versions. EMI’s early digital sound here does not suffer from “glare”; if anything, it is a little bit too recessed – especially the choir, who are beautifully unified but at times almost inaudible in the “Lever du jour” - but that lends a broad perspective to the acoustic. The quieter sections are very elegantly played and the LSO’s soloists -especially the lead violinist in Daphnis’ dance – are virtuosic. The lack of bite in the sound detracts from the impact of the wilder sections, and Previn’s more cautious tempi mean that the concluding “Danse générale” is not as overwhelming and overpowering as the more released versions, despite the wonderful playing from the LSO.
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink; live 1989; Philips Tanglewood Festival Chorus
A magically soft opening creeps in, setting the requisite tone, and there is nothing too restrainedly “Dutch” about the release Haitink obtains for the first climax, again promising the right combination of delicacy and power – indeed, his control of dynamics is the hallmark of his conducting here, ideally served by the virtuosity of the BSO, once again supreme in this music. The chorus , too, is especially subtle and ethereal. Finally, the acoustic here is much more natural and ambient than, for example, the spotlighted quality of Boulez’ second, DG recording; so much here is beautiful and atmospheric.
Just occasionally, however, despite the promise of the first highlight, Haitink does indeed seem to be in danger of overseeing a boring interpretation and I do feel that he could let his orchestra off the reins a little more. The “Danse guerrière” is lively enough but he certainly doesn’t match Munch for intensity; the final orgiastic dance is similarly fleet and precise but not exactly orgasmic. Orchestre Philharmonique et Chœur de Radio France/Myung-Whun Chung; 2004; DG
A wonderful, mystical, magical opening with the most carefully gauged crescendos and a choir perfectly balanced in the distance but still always audible. Elegant, delicate, lilting playing graces this version but there is still plenty of erotic tension, and sufficient bite and drollery in passages such as the “Danse grotesque de Dorcon” and when the pirates are rushing around. The invocation of Pan at the close of the first part is especially atmospheric, with a judiciously applied wind machine as is the ensuing choral a cappella melismata – and the engineers skilfully manage to bring the chorus forward imperceptibly. Chloé’s supplicatory dance is sultry, fluid and almost obscenely erotic – more Salome than simple shepherdess. The famous dawn passage opening Part Three is exquisitely played, melding seamlessly with the choral backdrop. Sensitive, poetic flute-playing distinguishes the mime number and the finale is first dreamy, with its prominent harp glissandi, then fleetly athletic.
This is not the most dramatic of accounts but it is certainly one of the most beautifully played and best engineered.
Boston Symphony Orchestra/James Levine; live 2007; BSO Live Tanglewood Festival Chorus
As I mentioned in my introduction, this performance is far preferable to Levine’s VPO/DG recording in terms of engineering; it is beautifully recorded for a live performance, the only real disadvantage being that there is just the occasional, faint cough. That apart, the sound really is comparable if not superior to the best studio, digital recordings, with a wide dynamic range capturing the warmth of the hall and a perfect balance between the choir and orchestra. The soloists’ contributions are well forward in the sound-picture without sounding unnaturally highlighted and the choir is first-rate.
Levine secures a pleasing momentum in the first section, co-ordinating the chorus and the orchestra; both are superb. There is a kind of drive and electricity about this performance that I find distinctive and most appealing. Perhaps Munch, Monteux and Ozawa find more mystery and delicacy in the score but passages such as the “Invocation to Pan” are highly evocative, with an excellent wind machine and the violent passages have great impact – and the “Danse de supplication” is as sultry as any, while the central “Lever du jour” unfolds like a heavily scented, tropical bloom. The final orgy is gripping, the choir and bass timpani really coming through the orchestral textures and eliciting deserved vociferous applause from the otherwise quiet audience which just breaks out immediately after the final notes.
This is as vivid, colourful and opulent a recording as any modern version.
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles; 2011; BBC Music Magazine Edinburgh Festival Chorus
This is a recording of a live concert performance at the Proms issued on CD in 2020 as vol. 28, No. 10 accompanying BBC Music Magazine. As such, it might be a little more difficult to obtain as time goes on but there are currently plenty available on eBay. It is fleet (52:29), flexible and fluid, if somewhat lacking in that intangible atmosphere of otherworldliness some other recordings seem to generate – but everything is done right and Runnicles catches the swift succession of moods effectively, so, for example, the grotesquerie of Dorcon’s dance contrasts neatly with the suavity of Daphnis’ own and the pictorial nature of the narrative sequence emerges very clearly. I have heard more convincing wind-machines – this is recorded too closely – but otherwise, by and large, the playing and singing are admirable. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus is excellent and well-positioned; they are subtler yet larger-sounding than some choirs, first sounding more akin to Holst’s choir in “Neptune” but then crank up the volume impressively in the “Interlude” with losing tonal homogeneity. Runnicles finds plenty of fire in the pirate episodes and the finale is dangerously fast – but the orchestra and choir keep up and boy, does it work - as the audience response confirms.
The sound quality is first class, with a wide dynamic range – not always the case with BBC recordings – and there is not a sound from the audience. Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth; live 2016; Harmonia Mundi Ensemble Aedes
This is a strangely sterile, ice-water kind of account, as if the work has been dragged out of the shadows into the stark light of day, stripped of all mystery. Clarity is the key and all the strands of the music are on display and highlighted such that it sounds like neo-classical Stravinsky – devoid of eroticism and keenly precise. If you like the idea of a new, forensic approach denuded of lush timbres, played hard and fast, sample this in YouTube first. The orchestral sound is so thin as to suggest a chamber group, the sonorities pared down into slim skeins of tone, fat-free and austere, like musical tofu. Even the wind-machine sounds oddly artificial and under-nourished; the business-like choir is barely distanced and all-too-present, sounding as if they are intent upon singing the notes as straight and emotionlessly as possible – presumably as instructed - and inflections or subtleties be damned. There is not a shred of the magical or the numinous about this recording; Roth is like an atheist explaining transubstantiation.
Interesting, yes. Authentic Ravel, as he envisaged it – no. This is not The Rite of Spring.
Several of the surveys I have previously undertaken have posed me a dilemma when it comes to making recommendations because the field was so packed with superlative recordings. I find this is more the case with orchestral pieces – less so with vocal and operatic works; thus, I made some fairly arbitrary and personal choices of favourites for Strauss’ Metamorphosen and Sinfonia domestica, and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht; the same dilemma applies to Daphnis et Chloé.
Nonetheless, two recording here stand out and the first is the most obvious and unoriginal choice: Pierre Monteux – but it is very closely followed by the 1954 vintage classic from Munch. Among more modern recordings, I jointly favour Ozawa and Dutoit, closely followed by Levine and Runnicles.
Ralph Moore Sections
2 Danse religieuse
3 Vif - Danse générale
4 Danse grotesque de Dorcon - Scène
5 Danse légère et gracieuse de Daphnis
6 Lent [devant le groupe radieux que forment Daphnis et Chloé enlacés]
7 Danse de Lyceion
8 Scène [Les pirates]
9 Nocturne [une lumière irréelle enveloppe le paysage]
10 Danse lente et mystérieuse des nymphes
12 Introduction - Danse guerrière
13 Danse suppliante de Chloé
14 Lent [soudain l'atmosphère semble chargée d'éléments insolites]
15 Lever du jour - Scène
16 Pantomime [Daphnis et Chloé miment l'aventure de Pan et de Syrinx]
17 Très lent [Chloé figure par sa danse les accents de la flûte]
18 Chloé tombe dans les bras de Daphnis
19 Animé - Danse Générale