London Chamber Orchestra Plays Ravel, Faure, Poulenc, Ibert

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RAVEL Le Tombeau de Couperin. Pavane pour une infante défunte. FAURÉ Pavane. POULENC Piano Concerto. IBERT Divertissement Christopher Warren-Green, cond; London CO; Pascal Rogé (pn) SIGNUM SIGCD211(66:09) Live: London 5/25/2008; 4/21/2010

This CD has been a happy surprise. I worried initially, as one does at the thought of a chamber orchestra undertaking orchestral repertoire, that the sense of scale might demand a listener’s indulgence at critical moments. Chamber orchestras can sometimes strain to project power, and in so doing give the impression of a larger orchestra thinly recorded. But the London Chamber Orchestra is a fairly large group of about 65. Here, if there is any criticism, it is that the Ravel and Fauré pieces, set down on a separate program, have been recorded almost too closely by the engineers. The venue is St. John’s, Smith Square, London, which is capable of a bit more air around the sound, as the Poulenc and Ibert works happily reveal.

But even so, the refinement and sense of scale immediately evident in Christopher Warren-Green’s performance of Tombeau make one forget any concerns. A little claustrophobia in the presence of death never hurts. Ravel composed two orchestral war works, La Valse, which speaks from the dark side of gaiety, and the four orchestral Couperin selections taken here from his piano suite. They are played beautifully. Le Tombeau de Couperin projects an alabaster moonlit dignity. It has always reminded me a bit of Henri Rousseau’s painting The Sleeping Gypsy, where, passing in the night, a lion bends over a sleeping human figure with something approaching metaphysical respect. And one could hardly ask more of the two pavanes than that they be solemn and flowing, as done here.

But my enthusiasm for these performances is only augmented when we come to the Poulenc Piano Concerto and the Ibert Divertissement. I’m immediately struck by how soft and appealing Pascal Rogé’s piano sounds in the acoustic environment. And the orchestral complement manages considerable warmth, while at the same time scaling down the blattyness that can sometimes infect the piece. Poulenc and Ibert are tricky composers to get right. Imagine a pair of French Leonard Bernsteins who don’t seem to know from one moment to the next when not to burst into “Officer Krupke” from West Side Story , and you have the essence of the problem. Find the wit, but deep-six the razzmatazz.

Happily, Christopher Warren-Green has their measure and keeps them within bounds. More importantly, he finds the sincerity in the music and you come away liking it. The slow movement of the Piano Concerto conveys a timeless sadness, and the quiet atmospherics in the Ibert are as enjoyable as the more motoric moments. Notes by Peter Quantrill, too, have a special and direct charm. You can’t really improve on his description of the Nocturne: “You can almost see Belmondo and rings of cigarette smoke through the light string haze”. Exactly. And of course, New York listeners familiar with WQXR will hear “Parade” and know it is time for lunch! Bon appétit!

FANFARE: Steven Kruger

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: SIGCD211

  • UPC: 635212021125

  • Label: Signum Classics

  • Composer: Francis Poulenc, Gabriel Fauré, Jacques Ibert, Maurice Ravel

  • Conductor: Christopher Warren-Green

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: London Chamber Orchestra

  • Performer: Pascal Rogé