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Ravel orch SWR19428CD
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Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Orchestral Works
SWR Vokalensemble, Cantus Juvenum Karlsruhe
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR /Stéphane Denève
rec. 2012-15, Liederhalle Stuttgart; Stadhalle Sindelfingen, Germany
No texts provided
SWR CLASSIC SWR19428CD [5 CDs: 338]

Between 2012 and 2015 SWR Classics released five discs of the orchestral music of Ravel conducted by Stéphane Denève. This newly released box contains those same recordings, in the same couplings simply collected together in a slim cardboard box with each disc in a paper slip. The booklet is one of the most useless I have seen in recent times as it simply lists the tracks and artists and includes conductor (only) biography and a brief history of the orchestra. Given that the set includes the two operas and the Shéhérazade song cycle the absence of any texts or libretti is disappointing. The booklet and box cover is of Denève staring at the camera in a pose oddly reminiscent of a photo-shopped Madame Tussard’s waxwork. However, there is a significant price benefit to the economy packaging. In the UK, the Presto Music website is currently offering the original single discs at around £13.25 each whereas this 5 disc set is just £23.00 so a pretty massive saving if the couplings and performances appeal.

The box is entitled “Ravel Orchestral Works” which – as ever – brings up the question of what is included and what is not. Clearly all the “core” works are here. But where for example Dutoit in Montreal had a disc of the piano concerti (but no Tzigane), Denève offers no concertante works at all but instead we get the two operas, the aforementioned Shéhérazade, and Ma mère l’Oye in both the complete ballet and five pieces version. None of the sets – Slatkin on the recent Naxos is an exception and the most complete - seems to consider Ravel’s orchestrations as suitable for inclusion in surveys of his orchestral works. All five discs are reasonably generously filled – the shortest still running to 62:21. I reviewed Volume 3 which includes Daphnis et Chloé almost exactly six years ago. Looking back at my review then I see that my reaction could be summarised as “good but there are better”. Perhaps the most salient fact is that I do not recall having chosen to listen to this version of that great work again in the intervening years.

In recent months there have been a couple of marquee releases of Ravel orchestral works from Chandos with John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London and BIS in Stockholm with Sakari Oramo (review). Both of those discs were recorded in state of the art SACD sound. I reviewed the Wilson disc for this site just a few months ago and for sure the playing is pretty remarkable but overall I found Wilson not overly impressive in the more languorous and impressionistic passages. Comparing the Chandos to this disc it has to be said that the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR are consistently excellent and give little if anything to the Wilson all-stars but conversely Denève is at his best when focussing on atmosphere and reverie and less compelling in the muscular conclusions to works such as La Valse, Alborada del Grazioso or indeed Boléro. Indeed the closing pages to the latter are a considerable let down. This is all the more disappointing because Denève’s basic tempo is spot-on; steady but with an inexorable forward momentum. Also, the solos by the Stuttgart winds are quite beautiful. Returning to Wilson, I find his “USP” of antiphonal side-drums more irritating with each new listen! Denève’s La Valse again starts really well – he captures the mood of dream-delirium with shuddering violins and grumbling basses exceptionally well. Indeed this performance works well all the way through although I have heard more cataclysmic endings.

On the first disc Le tombeau de Couperin receives a wholly successful performance with Denève’s light and clear approach perfectly matching the intricate writing which is beautifully executed by the Stuttgart players. Again Rapsodie espagnole mixes passages of exceptionally atmospheric playing with relatively mundane climaxes so ultimately this is a disc of fine performances excellently played but in totality lacking the last ounce of thrill-factor. Disc two is more completely successful mainly because the programme as a whole seems to chime more closely with Denève’s sensibilities. Given that Ravel wrote so little music for orchestra nothing is rare on disc with multiple alternatives available. That said the early Shéhérazade, ouverture does not feature in that many programmes. For sure it is not vintage or mature Ravel but it is an important step on the way to the composer he became. Here Denève is very good at creating the dancing rapture of the score – helped as ever by the top class wind playing of the orchestra. Likewise the complete Ma mère l’oye is given a very good performance – preferable to my ear to the recent Wilson recording where precision won out over atmosphere. The later piano orchestrations of Une barque sur l’océan and Menuet antique are likewise given elegant and poised performances.

Volume three is a reacquaintance for me with the disc I reviewed in 2016. Having spent most of my time recently immersed in Denève’s consistent approach to Ravel I find that although I agree with most of what I wrote before perhaps I have a greater appreciation of his approach. That said, I do still find that his refusal to ever quite unleash the music results in a sense of anticlimax – in Daphnis et Chloé this is most apparent at the conclusion of both halves of the ballet. The singing of the Vokalensemble Stuttgart is absolutely top notch – this is notoriously difficult for choirs to pitch and I have to say the singing here is pretty much ideal in that respect although again I wish that the singing was more dynamic at climaxes – the production choice of moving the off-stage choir forward in the aural picture remains a mistake. That aside, the SWR engineering is a consistent delight – across all the discs of the set – with the orchestral perspectives refined and clear and extremely well balanced. I do have a lingering concern of where languor ends and longueurs begin. The Valses nobles et sentimentales are given another poised and skilled performance as the work does align itself better with Denève’s preference for control and precise detail.

Discs four and five are dominated by Ravel’s two mature operas; L’Heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges. These are both works I know but without any great familiarity – indeed it was their presence in this set that prompted me to request it for review. Before L’Heure espagnole there is a fine and sensual performance of the Shéhérazade – 3 poems for voice and orchestra sung by Stéphanie d'Oustrac. Confusingly the liner – in what little information it does provide, labels her a mezzo for Shéhérazade and a soprano for her role of Concepción in the opera that follows – she is in fact the former. The confusion does give lie to the fact that she has an impressive and indeed expressive voice with a very wide range. Looking at her biography it ranges from period performances of baroque opera through to French operetta and crucially, as far as the opera is concerned, she has performed the work onstage. But considering the song cycle first – the musical stars are aligned with Denève’s expressive preference, the beauty of the Stuttgart orchestra’s playing, the subtle and sophisticated engineering and d'Oustrac’s sensual singing making for a genuinely compelling performance. Of course the catalogue features many other famous recordings but I enjoyed the totality of this version as much as any.

L’Heure espagnole was written by Ravel as an opéra-bouffe. So apart from the deliberately ardent solos given to the tenor role of the student Gonzalve, nearly all of the vocal writing mimics speech patterns and rhythms. The way in which Ravel weaves these naturalistic lines into the orchestration is proof of his meticulous mastery of the orchestra and again this chimes [pun intended!] well with Denève’s objective conducting style. The complete absence of a libretto or even synopsis in this set is annoying but not insurmountable for anyone with access to the internet. The sophistication of the writing does rather dilute the knockabout potential of this bedroom farce but there is no doubting the sheer brilliance of Ravel’s score. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt who sings Torquemada – the deceived watchmaker/husband – also appears on a BBC Music Magazine performance taken from a 2002 Proms concert. There the duplicitous Concepción is sung by Sarah Connolly and it is interesting to make a direct comparison with d'Oustrac. For sure in 2002 Connolly was in fine vocal shape but it is instantly clear with d'Oustrac’s engagement with the dramatic implications of the text as well as her francophone ease that hers is the more engaging ‘theatrical’ performance. She brings to the role that capricious quality that is absolutely right – hard not to think that her experience singing French operetta has helped here too. Indeed the whole cast engage well with the playful spirit of the work. The SWR engineers achieve a very successful balance between voices and orchestra. Emotion is kept at something of an arm’s length in this work – most comic opera struggles to be truly funny and this work is no different. There is an interesting online article about the difficulty of producing modern translations of opera which stay true to the requirements of the written score while also appealing to modern tastes, so ultimately this is a work that appeals to my head and not to my heart. But even with that caveat this is a very engaging performance and recording.

If L’Heure espagnole was Ravel’s take on an existing operatic form than L’enfant et les sortilèges is something much more individual and pretty much unique – the score calls it a “Fantaisie Lyrique”. Part of the reason for its very unusual style is the extended time-frame over which the work evolved. The libretto was written by Colette in 1916 originally as a fairy ballet for the Opéra de Paris. Ravel tinkered with the work over a period of years but eventually the commission was taken over by the Monte Carlo Opera by which time the stylistic emphasis was closer to operetta but with dance elements retained. Apparently Ravel was influenced and impressed by the new American Musical Theatre productions. The fact that George Balanchine choreographed the first production in 1925 reflects that influence. Regarding the premiere Ravel wrote; “Our work requires an extraordinary production: the roles are numerous, and the phantasmagoria is constant. Following the principles of American operetta, dancing is continually and intimately intermingled with the action. Now the Monte Carlo Opera possesses a wonderful troupe of Russian dancers, marvelously directed by a prodigious ballet master, M. Balanchine. ... And let's not forget an essential element, the orchestra.".

Over the years there have been about thirteen recordings including this disc with Lorin Maazel’s 1960 performance with the French National Radio possibly the most famous although Ernest Ansermet’s 1954 version features a stellar cast as well although the issues of balancing such a complex score caused both production teams problems they did not wholly surmount. Ravel’s mentioning of the orchestra is significant – he gave this work one of his most intricate and sophisticated scores and any successful performance relies on the calibre of the orchestra and the ability of the engineering to capture the subtle details of the work. Both of those criteria are very well fulfilled here. Again, the absence of libretto or synopsis frustrates – IMSLP comes to the rescue with the full score, although the text is in French only. Even a cursory glance at the score reveals a remarkable wealth of detail that Ravel writes into the score both in terms of instrumentation and performance directions. Camille Poul sings the role of the petulant child and it strikes me that she has a voice that captures the character perfectly while at the same time being reminiscent of the light and agile style of singing so characteristic of French operetta. Since the rest of the singers are given multiple roles [as is standard in the work] it is crucial for Poul’s role to give a consistent through-thread to the whole work. Arguably hers is the only character who ‘develops’ the remainder are caricatures as much as characters. That said, they are also very well defined here. Paul Gay as the Armchair is the only singer to appear in both the operas in this set – vocally he is a rather “worn” armchair(!) but in context this is rather apt. Ravel avoids any sentiment so Denève’s alert and clear-eyed approach feels apt and appropriate. Ravel’s nods towards the up-to-date-isms of 20’s jazz and ragtime which must have seemed shockingly modern in 1925 now are novel at best and in fact rather jar with the rest of the aesthetic of the work as they sound exactly what they are – Ravel pretending to write in a jazz-ish idiom rather than it springing from any creative or emotional imperative. That said, the Stuttgart orchestra plays these passages with exactly the kind of implied sleaze I imagine Ravel wished.

Interestingly these passages do not come off as well in Previn’s 1981 recording for EMI with the LSO. You might expect Previn – such a genuine master at jazz and also the show idiom - to have this down to a tee [if not a tea-pot?] But the immediacy of the EMI recording robs the scoring of much nuance and also the English singers pretending to be French speaking English has the odd effect of Inspector-Clouseau-does-Ravel. Previn revisted the work sixteen years later for DG (I have not heard that version) so perhaps he realised the earlier recording was not his finest hour.

In fact, I do not know that many of the alternative versions available to be able to make valid comparisons. However, I have to say that the more I hear this Denève version the more I think the balance – musical, vocal and engineering-wise has been very well achieved. Again, I am not sure I will truly love this score but I have certainly enjoyed it here more than before. The disc and the set is completed by a performance of the original five pieces that made up Ma mère l’oye. A measure of Ravel’s genius is how seamlessly he created the linking sections that then evolved into the complete ballet offered on the earlier disc. These links add twelve minutes to the original seventeen and I have no doubt that the extended/complete version of the work is more satisfying in every respect. For sure Denève is as attuned to this music’s idiom here as he was in the full ballet version but frankly this is redundant in the context of this set and a shame that there were no other performances that could have been included.

Overall, I find this quite a tricky set to evaluate. The playing and engineering is consistently very good indeed. The price of this box set is attractive but with the first three discs there are various other options I would prefer. However Denève is very consistent in his meticulously prepared and slightly detached style which might appeal more to some listeners than it did to me. The song cycle and the two operas engaged me the most but buying those discs separately would be more expensive than this box.

Nick Barnard

Volume 1
La valse (1920) [12:14]
Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) [17:48]
Alborada del gracioso (1905/18) [7:48]
Rapsodie espagnole (1907-8) [16:00]
Boléro (1928) [15:19]
Volume 2
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1910) [6:17]
Ma mère l’oye – complete ballet(1911-12) [29:58]
Une barque sur l’océan (1926) [7:34]
Shéhérazade, ouverture (1898) [13:35]
Menuet antique (1929) [7:06]
L’Éventail de Jeanne: Fanfare (1927) [1:50]
Volume 3
Daphnis et Chloé (1912) [56:35]
Valses nobles et sentimentales (1912) [16:43]
Volume 4
Shéhérazade – 3 poems for voice and orchestra (1903) [17:14]
L’Heure espagnole (1911) [49:13]
Volume 5
L’enfant et les sortilèges (1917-25) [49:13]
Ma Mère l’Oye, five pieces for children (1911) [17.50]
Stéphanie d'Oustrac (soprano – Shéhérazade)
L’Heure espagnole cast:
Stéphanie d'Oustrac, soprano (Concepción), Yann Beuron, tenor (Gonzalve), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, tenor (Torquemada), Alexandre Duhamel, baritone (Ramiro), Paul Gay, bass (Don Inigo Gomez);
L’enfant et les sortilèges cast:  Camille Poul, soprano (Child), Marie Karall, mezzo-soprano (Mother, Chinese cup, Dragonfly), Julie Pasturaud, mezzo-soprano (Bergère, Shepherd, She-cat, Squirrel), Annick Massis, soprano (Fire, Princess, Nightingale), Mailys de Villoutreys, soprano (Shepherdess, Bat, Owl), Paul Gay, bass (Armchair, Tree), Marc Barrard, baritone (Clock, Tomcat), François Piolino, tenor (Teapot, Little old man, Frog)
Stuttgart SWR Vocal Ensemble, Karlsrühe Youth Choir

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