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Ravel orchestral CHSA5280
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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La Valse M72 (1918-20) [11:34]
Ma Mère L’Oye M62 (1911) [27:58]
Alborada del Gracioso M43c (1918) [7:04]
Pavane pour une Infante défunte M19a (1910) [8:10]
Valses Nobles et Sentimentales M61a (1912) [15:45]
Boléro M81 (1928) [14:42]
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 2020/2021, Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London, UK
24 bit/96KHz 5.0 channel surround

Although just the sixth release by John Wilson and the newly reformed Sinfonia of London, their recordings are already proving to be something of marquee releases for Chandos. The qualities that were evident on the earlier discs are again present here – the quality of the individual and collective virtuosity of the playing is little short of astonishing allied to some of Chandos’ finest engineering in demonstration quality SACD multi-channel sound ensures that this is an exciting and impressive aural experience. Especially so when the orchestra is playing scores by one of the 20th Century’s greatest orchestrators – Maurice Ravel. An additional bonus is the running time of the disc – a remarkable 83:45 which makes it one of the longest single-disc releases I have encountered. In repertoire terms this means that for the Ravel collector, aside from Daphis et Chloe, Rapsodie Espagnol and Le Tombeau de Couperin, all of the main Ravel orchestral works are included. For the experienced collector there is the intriguing appeal that both Ma Mère L’Oye and Boléro are marked “première recording in this edition” and the liner makes some deal out of the fact that the composer’s original intentions have been restored in both the parts and the execution with Hugh Macdonald’s liner commenting on the “careless reading” of the scores by previous interpreters. I am not wholly comfortable with the suggestion that the great and the good performers of the past were “careless”. Anyone buying this disc because in some way they perceive it to be the ultimate version of any of the pieces presented here will be disappointed – attention to detail does not necessarily make for insightful interpretations. Frustratingly apart from simply stating that “many details” have been restored no specific examples are given [Chandos/Wilson did the same thing with his recent Eric Coates discs] which for someone interested in this level of detail is rather frustrating. Apart from a couple of obvious audible tweaks in Boléro – about which more later – the average listener, including myself will be blissfully unaware of any significant changes.

I have been an admirer of the releases to date from this combination of performers – indeed both the Respighi Roman Trilogy disc in 2020 and the debut Korngold Symphony recording the year before made it into my “record of the year” list. But this new disc is not at that level for the simple reason that Wilson is not especially insightful or nuanced in this repertoire. Wilson has a general preference for moving tempi on. Nothing excessive and certainly nothing which the stunning Sinfonia of London cannot cope with, but he often sits at the quicker end of a tempo range. Curiously in the three main ‘showpiece’ works here; La Valse, Alborada del Gracioso and the ubiquitous Boléro for me the result is that the essential swagger and sway, the seductive sensuality implicit in all three works is sacrificed for something more muscular and urgent. La Valse featured in the orchestra’s concert debut at the 2021 BBC Proms to huge acclaim. My memory – I have not revisited it to make a comparison - of listening to the concert is that indeed that was a thrilling performance with Wilson’s swirling virtuoso performance vividly exciting. On disc it just feels a little urgent – still exciting and impressive but rather one dimensional missing out on the insidious delirium that other conductors find. I see from the recording information that this performance was recorded in the days immediately before the Proms concert.

I found the same to be true of the Alborada as well – almost impatient in its rather plain interpretation. For sure Wilson is very accurate and aided by the forensically clear Chandos engineering detail emerges in often revelatory ways but the result of that is to leave a version that does not feel as if its more than the sum of its parts. Boléro is one of those curious pieces in the Classical Music canon that players love to hate and audiences just love. But in the right hands it does have a sense of inexorable, hypnotic inevitability that is theatrically compelling. Wilson’s tempo is pretty average – Abbado is fractionally faster, Dutoit fractionally slower to name just two famous alternatives. Make no mistake the numerous solos are played by the Sinfonia of London principal players quite beautifully and the Chandos recording captures the subtle timbral differences of the ‘unusual’ instruments Ravel calls for very well. The main audible difference referred to above is that Wilson deploys a pair of antiphonal side-drums who alternate every 18 bars throughout the piece. The standard score does indeed indicate “2 side drums” but the second is introduced at the work’s climax to reinforce the single player. Curiously I found the alternation here – perfectly played though it is – had the aural effect of sectionalising the work so that instead of a sense of implacable progression from first to last in one great arc, this feels like a lot of repeated sections – which is exactly what drives the average orchestral player to despair when they see the work programmed. The other instantly audible difference is the addition of castanets to the repeating drum rhythm in the last couple of minutes of the work. On their first entry the ear does notice them but it is hardly the kind of thing that will tip the balance as far as a performance is concerned. Wilson seems to add little to overall experience – the solo players play beautifully but the accompaniments are relatively plain. The ending is suitably epic in terms of volume but somehow lacking the ultimate release the best versions do.

The three other works on the disc do not deploy the extended post-Romantic orchestra to such obvious and colourful effect. But in fact it could be argued that Ravel’s orchestrational skill is even more on display in these more restrained works. Every subtle detail is positioned with Fabergé-like precision and in some ways this plays more to the strengths of Wilson’s approach and the Chandos engineering especially in the Neo-Classical Valses Nobles et Sentimentales which for me was the highlight of the disc. Certainly the complete version of Ma Mère L’Oye also benefits from the forensic perfection of the performance here. However, while I was listening I jotted down several words of qualities that I feel this performance lacks; “tenderness, rapture, dreamlike”. Ravel seeks a childlike innocence in this work that is quite unlike his other scores which do have a sensual element central to their impact. Wilson’s Ma Mère is a triumph of objectivity but oddly joyless. The last work is the popular Pavane pour une Infante défunte. Again the poise and sheer tonal beauty of the playing is simply superb and the music benefits from Wilson’s unaffected approach. Certainly this is a piece and performance which benefits from the direct simplicity of the music-making.

This disc has many virtues including the superlative playing and the very fine engineering. I listened to the SA-CD stereo layer and I must admit I did wonder a couple of times if the bass drum felt “outsized” relative to role it plays within Ravel’s orchestrations. Hugh Macdonald’s liner note (in Chandos’ usual tri-language format) is very good and usefully include a detailed synopsis – which I had not seen before - for Ma Mère L’Oye. The very generous running time is another significant bonus and I can imagine this disc proving popular with music and hi-fi collectors alike.

Nick Barnard

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