Ravel: Orchestral Music, Vol. 1 / Slatkin, Orchestre National De Lyon [blu-ray Audio]

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This is an audio-only (i.e., with no video content) Blu-ray disc playable only on Blu-ray players. Also available on standard CD RAVEL Alborada del gracioso....
This is an audio-only (i.e., with no video content) Blu-ray disc playable only on Blu-ray players.

Also available on standard CD

RAVEL Alborada del gracioso. Pavane pour une infante défunte. Rapsodie espagnole. Pièce en forme de habanera. Shéhérazade: Ouverture de féerie. Menuet antique. Boléro Leonard Slatkin, cond; Lyon Natl O NAXOS 8.572887 (67:37); NAXOS NBD0030 (Blu-ray audio: 67:38)

In the last issue, I found myself enormously impressed by Slatkin’s Berlioz Symphonie fantastique , so when I received his latest CD labeled Ravel Orchestral Works 1, I was expecting him to do as right by one French composer as he did by another. That must sound pretty silly, I know, but in the event, Slatkin doesn’t disappoint. He now presides over a French orchestra, but to listen to these performances, you wouldn’t know that it wasn’t the Philharmonic of London, Berlin, or New York. That’s very high praise for both the Lyon National Orchestra and for what Slatkin has achieved with the ensemble in so short a time. But it doesn’t necessarily make his Ravel special or more desirable than that by other conductors and orchestras.

Unlike Debussy, whose orchestral output is fairly limited, Ravel actually wrote a good deal of original music for orchestra, but no small volume of it is bound up in his early vocal and choral works, and is therefore not usually included in complete collections of scores that are exclusively for orchestra. But then any collection of Ravel’s purely orchestral works, which were originally conceived for orchestra, are mainly ballet and choreographed scores that can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and only one of them is on this disc— Boléro . But what of the other famous pieces included here?

Alborada del gracioso is the fourth movement from Miroirs , originally a suite for solo piano. It and two other numbers from the five-movement suite were subsequently orchestrated by Ravel himself. Pavane pour une infante défunte is a student piece Ravel wrote for solo piano in 1899 while under the tutelage of Fauré at the Paris Conservatory. Ravel orchestrated the Pavane himself, but not until 1910. Rapsodie espagnole was originally composed as a piece for piano duet in 1907, then orchestrated a year later. Ravel probably projected this to be an orchestral work from the start, but wanted to take his time working out the orchestration. Pièce en forme de habanera is, and was, as far as Ravel was concerned, a wordless vocalise for voice and piano. It exists in a number of instrumental arrangements—the present one is adapted for violin—none of which is by Ravel. Shéhérazade: Ouverture de féerie , like the Rapsodie espagnole , was originally sketched for piano, but intended for orchestra. It was destined to become the overture to an opera by the same name which Ravel worked on in 1898 but never completed. Menuet antique is another piece composed for solo piano, this one in 1895. Ravel did get around to orchestrating it himself, but not until 1929. And finally, Boléro . This is the one piece on Volume 1 of Slatkin’s Ravel survey, which, as far as we know, went straight to its orchestral form without passing through a piano version. Interestingly though, it made a backward migration to piano when Ravel subsequently produced two keyboard arrangements, one for two pianos and one for piano four-hands. The piece was commissioned by the famous dancer, Ida Rubinstein—she who played the saint in Debussy’s The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian and scandalized the Parisian archdiocese. It was bad enough to cast a woman in the role of a male saint, but a Jewish woman, and a lesbian to boot, went too far.

It seems that Ravel’s Boléro caused a flap of its own, but it wasn’t an ecclesiastical one. The work was wildly successful from its very first performance at the Paris Opéra in 1928. But not long after, Ravel and Toscanini got into a dispute over the conductor’s tempo when he led the New York Philharmonic in the piece in Paris during the orchestra’s European tour. The two men exchanged heated words backstage, Ravel criticizing Toscanini for taking the piece too fast and not following his indicated tempo. Toscanini is alleged to have replied, “When I play it at your tempo, it’s not effective.” To which Ravel shot back, “Then don’t play it.” I’m afraid I’m with Toscanini on this one. For me, Boléro can’t be played too fast, the faster the better. Much as I take pleasure in most of Ravel’s music and can appreciate Boléro ’s mechanics, it’s one of those few works, like Orff’s Carmina Burana , that induces in me a feeling of revulsion. So, by all means, get it over with as quickly as possible.

Those who prefer their Boléro drawn out will no doubt like Slatkin’s reading of it, but Ravel might have the opposite complaint he voiced to Toscanini. The score is marked 72 to the quarter note. I tested the current performance against my metronome and found that Slatkin begins at 67 and gradually speeds up, finally reaching 72 about 30 seconds from the end. But this is not what Ravel wanted; he was clear that he wanted a steady beat maintained throughout.

As indicated at the outset, this is a finely performed program of Ravel favorites. The Lyon orchestra has the full measure of this music in its DNA, producing the veritable kaleidoscope of colors, both bright and pastel, that Ravel calls for. And unless you’re a Boléro fanatic, I wouldn’t be too hard on Slatkin for his slight deviation from the composer’s explicit instructions. A conductor’s job, after all, is to offer an interpretation. The recording, too, is quite good, though not as dynamic as the Berlioz Fantastique I reviewed from this same source. I’m inclined to recommend this release, but as a nicety rather than a necessity, to those in the market for a new sampler of Ravel favorites.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Release Date: November 13, 2012

  • UPC: 730099003063

  • Catalog Number: NBD0030

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Maurice Ravel

  • Conductor: Leonard Slatkin

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Lyon National Orchestra

  • Performer: Leonard Slatkin, Jennifer Gilbert